Unless they make big news (such as Toyota’s troubles last year), most of us live our lives blissfully unaware of product recalls for safety issues. And yet, safety recalls on cars, child safety seats, tires, and more are quite common (there are around 600 vehicle recalls a year in the U.S.). But if you should happen to a safety recall notification on your vehicle (or tires, or child safety seat, for that matter), chances are that you’ll have questions about how the recall works, why it was issued, and what steps you might need to take.

With that in mind, here’s a quick review of the basics of safety recalls as well as a few invaluable resources for keeping tabs on your vehicles.

How safety recalls are issued

Recalls are issued in one of 2 ways:

  1. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government agency charged with keeping our highways safe, issues a recall based on its analysis of potential problems submitted by drivers just like you.
  2. The manufacturer of the item in question issues the recall themselves after becoming aware of a potential problem.

Despite the rigorous testing most modern products endure, real-world performance often reveals issues that engineers and safety analysts simply can’t predict. That’s why it’s vital that concerned citizens report potential problems to the NHTSA. You can do this online at safercar.gov. The NHTSA employs a detailed multistep process to determine how valid complaints are.

Manufacturers, of course, may issue a recall on their products whenever they deem a product to be unsafe in any way.

Why recalls are issued

As you might imagine, safety recalls are issued whenever some defect in a motor vehicle or related product negatively affects how safe it is to use. More specifically, recalls are issued when:

  • A motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment (including tires) does not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, or
  • There is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.

What happens when a recall is issued

When either the NHTSA or a manufacturer decides that a safety recall is necessary, the manufacturer identifies who they have to notify (using DMV records in the case of cars and product registration documentation in the case of other items). The manufacturer must then explain to consumers:

  • The potential safety hazards presented by the problem
  • How to get the problem corrected (and remind them that the correction will be made free of charge)
  • When the remedy will be available
  • How long the remedy will take to perform
  • Who to contact if there is a problem in obtaining the free recall work

Note that while car manufacturers can easily identify owners of their vehicles, makers of products like child safety seats and tires depend on registration documents received from purchasers of products. If you purchase a child safety seat or set of tires, it’s vital that you register the product with the manufacturer — though the NHTSA has now set up another means to receive notification.

How you can keep in the know

Manufacturers are required to notify those affected by a safety recall via physical mail — if they have your info. But in this day and age, there’s a reason most of us refer to physical mail as “snail mail.”

Thankfully, the NHTSA has come up with a much more efficient means of sending safety recall announcements: email. Now you can receive recall announcements as soon as they’re issued for any or all of these categories:

  • Tires (average number of recalls since 2002: 20)
  • Child restraints (average number of recalls since 2002: 8)
  • All vehicles (average number of recalls since 2002: 600)
  • Up to 5 specific vehicles of your choice
  • Motorcycles, helmets, and equipment (average number of recalls since 2002: 45)
  • School buses (average number of recalls since 2002: 35)

To get yourself set up, just head over to the NHTSA’s safercar.gov.

And if you’re a smartphone user and sign up using your phone’s linked account, you’ll know as soon as you get the email.

Related links

Last year’s Toyota recalls
What to do if your car is recalled

Getting there


about John

John Moore Williams has spent his writing career providing advice on everything from proper septic system care to where to eat in Nice (and, during his tenure at Esurance, how to find the right insurance coverages). An avid descriptive grammarian, he encourages you to end sentences with prepositions and to split infinitives whenever possible.