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Has Your Car Been Recalled?

Ignore recalls at your own peril. Remember to check for TSBs.

by on Feb.26, 2010

Don't ignore a recall notice. The fix can often be quick and easy -- while the price of ignoring a potential safety defect could be steep.

The seemingly daily coverage of Toyota’s safety problems has put a focus on the issue of recalls.  Since the beginning of the year, the Japanese maker has announced safety campaigns to handle a variety of problems, from sticky accelerator pedals to malfunctioning Prius brakes.

But while the spotlight may be shining on the world’s largest maker, it’s by no means alone.  In recent weeks, a variety of manufacturers have announced recalls designed to address vehicle flaws, some minor, some quite significant.  They can involve faulty tires, malfunctioning windshield wipers or even misfiring airbags, the latter issue involving more than 300,000 Dodge and Chrysler minivans.

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There are a variety of ways for a maker to act when it uncovers a potential problem, and while we don’t have the space to go into the arcana of federal safety regulations, it’s wise to take it seriously if a recall notice lands in your mailbox. Surprisingly, concedes Bob Carter, general manager of the Toyota brand, a “significant number” of owners will postpone repairs or skip them all together.

Sure, they can be a real inconvenience and may leave you without a car for a brief period.  But while not all recalls are equal, it could prove foolish – even fatal — to ignore them.

That said, in most cases, recalls are triggered by the discovery of problems affecting a relatively small number of vehicles, so under most conditions, you can continue driving your vehicle until the dealer can schedule a repair.  When you call the service manager ask if there’s any particular advice for the meantime.  When Toyota announced the recall of 3.8 million vehicles, last October, it recommended owners remove floor mats that could inadvertently “entrap” accelerator pedals, causing a vehicle to race out of control.

Here are some other tips:

  • Speaking of making that call, recall notices should list a contact and provide a toll-free number where you can make an appointment;
  • If you’ve experienced the problem the recall is designed to cover, let the service representative know, as that might help you jump to the front of the line;
  • Ask if there might be a loaner vehicle available while yours is in the shop.

Just because you haven’t gotten a recall doesn’t mean your car doesn’t have problems, by the way.  Manufacturers occasionally discover a glitch that doesn’t rise to the standards requiring a recall and they might choose an alternative step, such as issuing a Technical Service Bulletin.  One TSB covers Prius headlights, which are known to occasionally wink out due to an electrical malfunction.  Another addressed cold weather starting problems with the Honda Insight hybrid.

If your car is under warranty, a manufacturer will usually cover the cost of repairs, but they’ll usually also require the dealer to prove the problem really exists with your vehicle.  Even if you’re out of warranty, automakers will sometimes cover all, or at least part of your costs.  Bob Stern, a Chicago salesman, recently wound up paying just $50, rather than $300, for his Prius headlight repair, though his hybrid was 4,000 miles out of warranty.

If you suspect a problem just might be covered by a recall or TSB, do a web search, as there are several places that list these.  And it doesn’t hurt to print out what you find.  Dealers are supposed to have these things on hand but experience suggests they don’t always seem to find them in their records.

If you’re looking to buy a used car, it’s a particularly good idea to check to see if your car is subject to a recall or TSB.  If you’re buying from an attentive owner or a particularly good dealer, they might even indicate that they’ve already checked and had any necessary repairs made.  But why take chances?  As a former president was fond of saying, “trust but verify.”  It could be a life-or-death matter.

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