In April 2009, General Motors began sending registered letters to owners of more than 1.4 million of its cars equipped with 3.8-liter V6 engines, notifying them of a recall for 1997-2003 V6-equipped Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs to address a potential engine fire hazard. The previous year, the company had sent letters to owners of 207,000 Buicks and Pontiacs with turbocharged versions of the same engine for the same problem.
By the time the 2009 recall was issued, there had been reports filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of almost 250 fires in such cars. The problem was thought to be caused by oil that had spilled or leaked onto heated exhaust manifold surfaces. In some cases, the oil caught fire and the flames spread to plastic parts, including the spark plug wiring channel and the upper intake manifolds and engine covers.
As almost all car-fire warnings do, the letters also urged owners not to park the cars in their garages or near homes or other flammable structures until the recall work had been completed.
But not every owner of a fire-prone GM vehicle has seen that letter. Although the rate of incidents is steadily declining, there have been at least 250 additional engine fires since the recall was announced three years ago, according to reports filed with NHTSA.
(Note: In August 2014, NHTSA launched a recall lookup tool that gives consumers access to recall records for individual vehicles sold new since 1999. This is a system that was mandated by Congress in 2012.)
In many cases, the owners of the burned-up cars said they were not aware that there had been a recall. Most had purchased the vehicles used. Many didn't know if the required repair work had ever been done. Some of the cars that were parked in garages are believed in several cases to have caused structural damage or damage to other vehicles as flames spread.
One Man's Fire
That's what happened in April to Pete Costello, shortly after he parked his 2001 Buick Regal GS in the garage at the county office building in Elyria, Ohio, where he works as a property assessor.
Costello said he purchased the Buick from a private party in early 2010 and wasn't told that the car had been recalled but hadn't been repaired. His father-in-law is a mechanic, so he takes the car to that shop rather than to a GM dealership, where he presumably would have learned of the recall and the repair that his car needed. Franchised dealerships routinely check vehicles for unperformed recall work, in part because they get paid by the automaker to do the repairs.
Just after he'd parked and returned to his office, Costello was summoned to the parking garage, where his car was in flames.
"By the time I got there, the fire department had put out the fire," he told Edmunds. But by then, the engine cover was melted and the engine was destroyed, he said. Heat from the flames caused minor damage to cars on both sides of Costello's, but the fire was limited to the Buick.
Costello said he's debating whether to junk the Buick, but probably will. "I paid $3,000 for it, and I've gotten my money's worth over the two years I've owned it," he said.
He's also planning on very quickly checking into the status of recalls on his wife's car, a 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix. That's another model covered by GM's engine fire recall.
More than two dozen consumers like Costello have complained on Edmunds forums of car fires that occurred after the launch of the 2009 recall. Like Costello, this forum user's car also caught fire while parked:
"My 2002 Grand Prix GTP caught on fire in a parking lot while I was in the grocery store two weeks ago," the forum user wrote. "I had just left work and was on my way home. I'm just thankful my daughter wasn't in the car with me. I submitted the claim to my insurance company, and they're totaling it because they can't find the wiring harness needed to fix it. GM doesn't make it anymore. I didn't learn of the recall on my car until after the fire."
Flaws in the System
What Costello and hundreds of others have experienced points to a major problem in the U.S. vehicle-recall system: There's no certainty that potentially dangerous cars — especially those in the used-car market — are being caught and fixed. Many are overdue for a repair that could mean the difference between a safe car and a potential death trap.
And while the responsibility for ensuring that a car has been checked for recalls ultimately rests with individual owners, the current system doesn't make the process easy.
Manufacturers send multiple letters to owners of affected cars in an effort to impress on them the seriousness of a car recall, but the letters don't always connect with new owners when a car is sold. Some original owners flat-out ignore recall notices and don't mention them to buyers. There is no law that requires a car's owner to notify a potential buyer that the car he's selling is the subject of a recall.
HTSA estimates that only about 70 percent of vehicles that are recalled ever get the necessary repairs.
As of December 2011, General Motors' "completion rate" for repairs under the two recalls was 52.5 percent. That's well under what GM spokesman Alan Adler said is the typical completion rate of about 70 percent for one of the company's recalls. That means that at best, 300,000 out of every 1 million GM vehicles recalled don't get the appropriate repair. Some cars aren't repaired because they already have been junked for various reasons before they are recalled. But in the case of the 2008 and '09 engine fire recalls, GM's latest data filed with NHTSA shows that more than 800,000 of the vehicles haven't been repaired, and 131,128 of the recall letters — almost 8 percent — have not been delivered for various reasons.
(After Edmunds published this article, General Motors provided an updated estimate for its overall completion rate for recalls, putting it at 80 percent, with recall rates in some years approach 90 percent. The relatively low response rate to the engine-fire recall in 2009 drags down the company's overall average, GM said. GM also said that because of that low 52.8 percent response rate, it has resumed mailing notices to registered owners of vehicles included in the engine recalls.)
Other automakers claim recall completion rates as high as 95 percent for specific campaigns, but none that Edmunds interviewed would follow GM's lead and provide a composite completion rate for all of their recalls.
According to a study conducted in 2011 by Carfax, a company that sells vehicle history reports, the used-car market is rife with cars that are subject to recalls. There were "at least" 2.7 million vehicles listed for sale last year that still were subject to unfulfilled recalls, says Carfax spokesman Christopher Basso. The Carfax study only addresses cars being sold online. It doesn't account for the cars sold each year through print ads or unadvertised private transactions.
Some car recalls target more minor matters, such as a recent one for a problem with the passenger-side windshield wiper motor in the 2012 Ford Focus. But many are very serious, targeting potential engine fires, driveshaft detachments and brake failures. In addition to the GM recall, for example, there are at least eight other recent ongoing passenger vehicle recalls in which a vehicle fire is a possible consequence of noncompliance, according to NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, which conducts many of the studies that lead to recall orders. While many of the recalls involve cars that are just a few years old, others address models that were first sold a decade or more ago.
Tracking Down Owners
GM has been diligent in trying to track down the owners of the recalled cars involved in the 3.8-liter V6 case, says GM spokesman Adler. It has sent letters a dozen times over the past three years attempting to reach everyone who owns one of the vehicles involved in the recall. The company gets owner addresses from state vehicle registration records compiled by R.L. Polk, a private vendor.
Likewise, Ford has issued a series of recalls since 1999 that cover more than 16.6 million cars and trucks equipped with a potentially faulty cruise control switch that can overheat and cause a fire. Ford has sent several letters to owners, but while millions of the vehicles have been repaired as a result, there are almost as many that haven't been fixed. In a recent filing with NHTSA, Ford reported that only 48 percent of the vehicles affected by the recall had been inspected or repaired.
Regulators and automakers worry constantly that not all of the vehicles will be repaired and that future owners might be caught unawares by severe problems, including car fires and brake and steering failures, that otherwise could have been prevented, says NHTSA spokesman Jose Uclés.
Meanwhile, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told Edmunds, "A recall, by definition, means there is a problem that poses an unreasonable risk to safety. If it is not completed, the consumers are putting themselves at risk." That's why it's important for everyone with a recalled vehicle to get the work done, he says.
Currently, NHTSA does not have the authority to require used-car sellers to disclose recalls or make recall repairs, Strickland said. "It's a safety hole we are trying to close. The consumer should be well aware of a vehicle's status at the time of purchase, whether from a used-car dealer, an individual or a car rental company."
There have been previous attempts to use other avenues to catch recalled cars before they're resold. Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety advocacy organization, said that he's suggested in various forums over the years that the individual state motor vehicle departments could use the annual registration process to keep owners abreast of recall information by checking each VIN against automakers' lists.
"They often say they will consider it, then nothing happens," Ditlow complains. "Where there's a will there's a way; unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a will."
It's not quite that easy, said Cathie Curtis, director of the vehicles program for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The group represents DMV administrators and law enforcement agencies.
"It would require significant resources" in computer equipment and programming and personnel training at a time most state budgets are being pared, Curtis says.
She continues, "It would be quite costly for a state to take on such an effort. And there might also be a question of liability" if a state said it was going to be responsible for alerting people to recalls.
Finding the present owner of a car that could be half a dozen or more years old can be difficult. And while it's not impossible to find owners as long as the vehicle is registered, the cost and effort in continuing the search through the years to track down vehicles that haven't been fixed is impractical. "You can only do so much," says a spokesman for one major automaker that's considered a leader in recall completions. (He asked not to be identified because his company — like most carmakers — doesn't want to acknowledge that it doesn't continue hunting down recalled cars until the last one is repaired.)
While automakers have the names and addresses of new-car buyers in their files, the trail often grows cold once the original owner has sold the car, especially in a private-party sale.
Given the long-term durability of modern vehicles, it's not uncommon for a car to be sold two or three times, and that makes it especially difficult for manufacturers to track owners affected by a recall. While individual state motor vehicle departments have the names and addresses of the registered owners, there's no requirement that a carmaker keep track of them by continuing to purchase annual registration lists from R.L. Polk or Equifax, the two companies that compile nationwide registration lists from data they buy from the state DMVs.
Also, original owners who move several times can get "lost" if the manufacturer doesn't have updated address information. NHTSA documents show that hundreds of thousands of recall letters are undelivered by the postal service in most large recalls, usually because the address on the registration is wrong or the registered owner moved and didn't leave a forwarding address.
Some owners even simply ignore recall notices, not realizing the potential danger. One writer who posted on the Edmunds forum bragged about it.
"I ignored all the recall notices sent to me by GM, and never had a problem," the forum user wrote. "Sorry for all you guys that did. I can say that I always was VERY careful in adding oil and checking the oil, and any oil that dripped back on the engine I wiped it up with a paper napkin."
Check Your Car
Because car recall notices can slip through the cracks, consumers should take a few minutes periodically to check if there are any outstanding recalls on the vehicles they own or are thinking about buying. And once a consumer has bought a used car, it's a good idea to register it with the manufacturer via its Web site. That will put the car back into the recall-communication loop.
In most car recalls, not every vehicle that fits into the model and model-year designations is subject to the recall. There usually also are production date boundaries. For example, not every 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix with a 3.8-liter V6 is covered by the GM recall.
The unique vehicle identification number (VIN) is how manufacturers and NHTSA track cars and trucks subject to a recall. The VIN is listed on vehicle registration papers and is also stamped in various places on every car and truck. The most accessible VINs can be found in the upper left corner of the dashboard, usually visible through the windshield, and on a sticker typically placed on the driver-side doorjamb.
There are numerous ways to track down general recall information — including, of course, at least one app — but until NHTSA launched its recall lookup tool in 2014 there were very few tools available to help consumers track down whether a specific vehicle was subject to a recall and whether the appropriate repairs were ever performed:
- NHTSA: This agency is the official government record keeper for every recall, but for years it had not helped consumers track recalled vehicles via their VINs. In August 2014, however, NHTSA announced a system that enables consumers to use the agency's Safercar.gov Web site to run VIN checks for recalls. The system has been under development for several years. It links to the vehicle manufacturers' own records and presents that information to consumers on the Safercar.gov site. Safercar.gov also allows consumers to register their cars so they can receive notices of future recalls that affect them. They also can sign up to receive weekly e-mail notices of all vehicle recalls. The system also enables consumers to sign up for future recall alerts involving tires and child car seats. Car owners can also file safety-related complaints about vehicles through the site.
- Edmunds.com: Our site provides a recall look-up service as part of its car maintenance guide. The Edmunds recall guide will check by make, model and year for recalls and technical service bulletins (TSBs). These bulletins often are called "secret warranties" and are sometimes used by manufacturers to tell dealership service departments to make repairs that aren't serious enough to warrant a recall. The page also lists the manufacturer's suggested maintenance schedule with estimated costs. It doesn't, however, allow a check of a specific vehicle via its VIN.
- Individual automakers: Car companies keep records of cars and trucks that were subject to a recall and were brought in to a franchised dealership to have the work done. One easy way to find out if a vehicle was subject to a recall and was repaired is to contact the automaker.
Buyers and owners can do that by mail, via a dealership or by calling the manufacturer's customer service line. There's usually a contact number listed in the vehicle's owner's manual. Most automakers also have an online system for checking. Some, like Ford, Honda and Toyota, have opened those online systems to everyone, so shoppers can check out a used car before purchasing. Others, like GM, only offer the online VIN-check service to owners of their vehicles.
The best way to start an online search for carmakers' records is to put the make and model of a vehicle ("BMW 3 Series," for example) and the word "recall" in an online search engine. It's best to then scan the results for a link to the manufacturer's special recall Web site. Often there's no link to recall information from the manufacturer's general Web site.
- MyCarStats: The MyCarStats recall and safety-check site is a free online resource that makes NHTSA's information easier to use. It neatly organizes and lists NHTSA recalls, consumer complaints, engineering investigations and technical service bulletins, providing synopses of each.
Users can search the MyCarStats service by individual make-model-year parameters. The site also lists all recalls for 52 makes going back more than two decades and can be searched that way. What it doesn't do is identify vehicles by VIN, so it can't be used to tell if a specific car or truck was included in a recall and received the required repair recall work.
- Carfax: The company has a recall site that lets some owners or shoppers know whether a specific car or truck is subject to an open recall. Unfortunately, it doesn't cover every manufacturer: Carfax spokesman Basso said that carmakers usually cite proprietary reasons for not wanting to open their VIN files to Carfax. The company, however, "continues to talk" to automakers that aren't yet sharing their VIN data, he said. For the many makes that are covered, users can enter a VIN and receive a Carfax report that either says there are no open recalls pertaining to the car or truck or identifies the pertinent recall.Basso says the company gets its information from manufacturers. That enables it to track down individual vehicles using the VIN, and determine whether the requested repair was ever performed by a manufacturer-designated service provider, typically a franchised dealer. Basso cautions that the report could show that there's still an open recall on the vehicle if a repair has been done by an independent garage or other non-franchised service provider. He also cautions against having recall repair work done somewhere other than a factory-authorized service provider. That "could end up voiding the recall," so that if the problem occurred after the work was done, the manufacturer would no longer be liable. It's unusual for independent garages to do recall repair work, however, because they don't get reimbursed for it.
Basso says the company gets its information from manufacturers. That enables it to track down individual vehicles using the VIN, and determine whether the requested repair was ever performed by a manufacturer-designated service provider, typically a franchised dealer.
He cautions that the report could show that there's still an open recall on the vehicle if a repair has been done by an independent garage or other non-franchised service provider. He also cautions against having recall repair work done somewhere other than a factory-authorized service provider. That "could end up voiding the recall," so that if the problem occurred after the work was done, the manufacturer would no longer be liable. It's unusual for independent garages to do recall repair work, however, because they don't get reimbursed for it.
Get It Done
NHTSA and manufacturers issue vehicle recalls to protect people from the harm and property damage that can be caused by a vehicle with a serious safety defect. It is clearly incumbent on manufacturers to try to reach every owner of every affected vehicle once a recall is issued. But it's also clear that they don't always succeed, especially when the cars and trucks being recalled are older and are likely to have been resold at least once.
Shoppers in the used-vehicle market should check out the recall status of vehicles they test-drive and that they might soon be parking in their garages. And longtime original owners should run a check of their cars and trucks as well, just to make sure there's no old recall that was somehow missed. A few minutes of research could save a life.
For more on the issue of recalled but unrepaired cars, please read: