Vehicle Safety Recalls

Consumer product and safety recalls seem to get processed by that part of the brain that listens to local traffic reports for roads we never travel. We hear them; we determine they’re not relevant to us; we dismiss them if the recall is not related to our personal automobile. An important question to ask yourself is: Does the safety recall apply to the parish or school vehicle? Missing a safety recall for a vehicle used by the parish or school can have deadly consequences.

But it can happen before you know it. Consider the serviceable old pickup truck donated to the parish when Mr. Boudreaux. Everyone knows he took meticulous care of it, and Mr. Boudreaux only drove it to the local hardware store, right? Do you have any records? When you transferred the title, did you ever tell the auto manufacturer there was a new owner? How would you know about a recall? What happens if something is seriously wrong and no one knows until the bookkeeper loses control of the car on the way to the bank on Monday?

A recent study by the Carfax service found that one in four vehicles on the roads in the United States is operating with an unfixed safety recall. That amounts to more than 63 million active vehicles with safety recalls. Similar research by J.D. Power and Associates estimated the number at 45 million vehicles and acknowledged the total could be much higher because it is difficult to track compliance rates on older recalls.

What does that mean for me?

Recalls cover all kinds of vehicles a parish, school or organization might own, including cars, trucks, buses, vans, pick-ups and utility trailers. Issues that trigger a recall range from door stickers with incorrect tire inflation information to faulty ignition switches, bumpers that could detach without warning, and airbags that may explode in a crash. Bottom line: You may have a vehicle with an outstanding recall.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) aims for 100% compliance, but automakers are pleased if 70% of vehicles covered by the recall come in for repairs, and most are not surprised when only 30% of owners respond. It is important to note that auto makers are not required to keep detailed historical compliance records.

Granted, there is a distinction between minor and major recalls, but they all have serious safety implications. As you can imagine, manufacturers are not likely to announce a recall for a cosmetic issue.

But as more manufacturers share common parts among vehicle models, the small recall that “only” affected 10,000 vehicles in the past may now cover millions. This is big!

Why don’t people come in for a free repair?

In short, most either don’t know there is a recall, or life intervenes. The owners of older cars, and ones passed along privately like Mr. Boudreaux’s pickup truck, are harder to find.  And families often can’t justify being without a vehicle for several days for something that doesn’t sound urgent.

How do recalls work?

Recalls are initiated when a vehicle or part doesn’t meet minimum Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and poses a safety risk for drivers, passengers, and other motorists. The manufacturer notifies the NHTSA and then sends a carefully prescribed notice to vehicle owners. The owners are advised to take the vehicle to a local dealership where the fix is usually made free of charge.

What can I do?

There are prudent steps you can take to make sure your vehicles are well-maintained and you are aware of potential recalls. For one, create and maintain an electronic or hardcopy database of the vehicles your parish, school or organization owns or leases. At a minimum, the entry for each vehicle should include:

  • Description (i.e. 2014 silver Volkswagen Jetta wagon)
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is on both the state registration document and a tag at the base of the driver’s side windshield
  • When and where you purchased or leased it (or when it was donated and by whom)
  • Cost of purchase/conditions and term of lease
  • Detailed maintenance record (Quarterly Vehicle Checklist). THIS IS CRITICAL. If there is a problem with the vehicle, this record will prove you have maintained the vehicle responsibly and the issue is not the result of owner neglect.
  • Where the vehicle is generally housed

Other tips include the following:

  • Register used vehicles with the manufacturer so you will be contacted if there is a recall.
  • Search the 17-character VIN of each vehicle at the NHTSA website to see if there are outstanding recalls on any of your vehicles.
  • Sign up for NHTSA safety alerts for each vehicle
  • If you learn of a recall through the website or from a manufacturer’s notification, ACT PROMPTLY! Although recalls don’t expire, if you are in an accident involving a recalled part that has not been fixed, it is more difficult to defend against damages even if the primary cause of the accident was not your fault.
  • Call the dealer for an appointment; don’t show up unannounced. Large-scale recalls strain corporate and dealer resources. As a result, it is sometimes a challenge for manufacturers to get enough replacement parts. Calling ahead will help ensure you don't make an unnecessary trip to the dealer.

Ultimately, you are responsible for the vehicles in your fleet. For the safety of your people and your own peace of mind, stay alert for recall information and act on what you find.


Quarterly Vehicle Checklist