We've all heard the word "recall" tossed around at one time or another, but it can be hard to pin down what it actually means in an automotive context anyway. With both the government and auto manufacturers issuing bulletins for everything from faulty seatbelt harnesses and cruise control cables to poor AM radio reception and warped plastic wheel covers, it's no wonder the distinction between formal recalls and other types of bulletins is unclear. For starters, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for investigating possible design and manufacturing defects in the vehicles we drive.
Most often, consumers complain to the NHTSA, and after several people complain about the same mechanical or
safety-related problem, the NHTSA will investigate the issue to determine whether the consumer or the
manufacturer is at fault.
If the manufacturer is found to be responsible for a serious defect that may compromise the safety of the vehicle, a recall is issued. In other instances, an auto manufacturer may find a defect that occurred during the design or manufacturing process of a vehicle and issue a recall voluntarily (the NHTSA still receives notification, though). Whatever the circumstances, a recall requires the manufacturer to send an official notice to owners of the vehicles found to be defective. Dealer service departments will then make the necessary repairs free of charge. Ordinarily, recalls affect only a portion of the production run of a given year, make and model.
You can easily find out about recalls that may apply to your vehicle by using our Maintenance Guide. Enter the year, make, model, trim level and drivetrain configuration, and you'll have access to the full text of all the recalls issued for that particular vehicle. For instance, we decided to check out the recall listings for two vehicles we used to have in our long-term test fleet a 2003 Honda Pilot EX and a 2000 Ford Focus ZX3. Our search turned up one recall for the Pilot, which definitely applied to our vehicle, and 10 recalls for the Focus, two of which applied to our long-termer while it was in our care.
Of course, only a dealer service department can determine whether your vehicle is actually affected by a recall by running the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) through the manufacturer database. Nevertheless, the Maintenance Guide is a good check-and-balance for consumers, as we know of more than one person who failed to receive a manufacturer's recall notice sent by mail. For more on this subject, read "Don't Be Stranded by a Missed Recall Notice."
Recalls are not to be confused with technical service bulletins (or TSBs) issued by the manufacturer for less serious problems that affect the normal operation of the vehicle. Sometimes called "secret warranties," TSBs cover known problems and provide repair instructions for service technicians, and accordingly, are distributed to all of the manufacturer's dealerships. (Some bulletins don't address any actual problems and merely provide updated information on parts and maintenance protocol.) The NHTSA maintains a database of TSBs issued by every manufacturer, but consumers only have ready access to summary information, which is usually quite vague.
Unlike recall-related repairs, which are performed on a no-questions-asked basis, TSB repairs are made only to resolve problems that can be verified by dealer service technicians. And generally, these repairs will be free of charge only if your vehicle is still under warranty. If you want to learn more about TSBs, check out these related stories, "You, Your Vehicle and the Technical Service Bulletin (TSB)" and "The Secret Warranty." You can also search for TSBs that may apply to your vehicle with the Maintenance Guide.
Related Article: What is NHTSA?