June 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

25% of recalled cars in U.S. aren't fixed despite notice

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year began requiring automakers to use new recall envelopes that display 'Important Safety Recall Information' in capital letters and feature the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA logos. )

One of every four cars recalled in the U.S. isn’t fixed, leaving millions of potentially dangerous vehicles on the road.

Some car owners mistake safety recall notices for junk mail and toss them without opening them. In some cases, owners may not think a recall is serious and opt not to get their cars fixed right away — or at all.

“Our data suggests that there are 36 million cars that are on the road that have an unfixed recall,” said Christopher Basso, public relations manager for Carfax, a company that provides vehicle history reports. “That’s all the recalls that don’t get fixed year after year, that compound year after year.”

General Motors Co. wants a 100-percent completion rate on its high-profile recall of 2.59 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars for defective ignition switches that have been linked to at least 13 deaths. GM says more than 154,000 ignition switches have been replaced. Recall fixes are free to owners, but certainly not to GM: The automaker said Monday that second-quarter recalls will cost it some $700 million, on top of $200 million in the first quarter.

The average recall completion rate in the U.S. is about 75 percent each year, but the rate for older vehicles is much lower, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Carfax’s Basso said there are several reasons recalls go unfixed: Cars are sold, owners move, or they simply ignore notices or don’t take time for repairs.

Automakers say they are working to boost completion rates through phone calls, follow-up postcards and social media. Federal regulators require automakers to notify customers within 60 days of when a recall is issued, even if no fix is available. Then, after there is a remedy, a second letter is issued.

GM, as part of its consent agreement with NHTSA for failing to timely recall vehicles with the ignition switch defect, is required to “engage with vehicle owners through new and traditional media, direct contacts with vehicle owners, and other means” to maximize its recall completion.

The company has launched www.gmignitionupdate.com. It provides information to consumers, including videos from GM CEO Mary Barra and head of Global Vehicle Safety Jeff Boyer. Customers can contact GM through the site to arrange repairs.

GM says its recall completion rate is among the best in the industry, at 80 percent 12 months after the first recall notice is sent to customers, and 85 percent after 24 months. The company has a 92 percent completion rate for the callback of more than 300,000 2014 Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierra pickups for fire risks early this year. That recall required a quick software update. GM asked dealers to call customers.

The Detroit automaker sends customers reminder recall postcards every three months — an initiative it has done for about a decade.

Chrysler Group LLC also is working to boost its recall response. It hired a consultant in 2012 to help it with strategies; it uses mail, email and phone calls to remind customers to take vehicles in for repairs. Before the program, Chrysler said its rates were about 70 percent 18 months after a first customer recall notice. Now, Chrysler’s rate is above the industry average and is more than 80 percent, according to Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne.

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Kelli Felker said the Dearborn automaker’s recall response rate varies. Ford sends owners up to five notifications, the last coming about three years after the first.

Honda’s recall completion rate for 2010 and newer vehicles is 83 percent. That rate is so good in part because it has a high percentage of customers who have service done at dealers in the early years of ownership, spokesman Chris Martin said.

With some recalls, Honda calls customers. It did so in 2010 and 2011 when the automaker recalled a number of vehicles for a potential air bag inflater ruptures. Some were more than 10 years old; Martin said Honda was concerned that some current owners “might ignore mailings from Honda.”

Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports magazine, recommends automakers step into the digital age. Car owners could register to be alerted via email or text message, he suggests.

Dealers and automakers also could boost response rates by offering free oil changes or $10 gas cards, Fisher suggests: “If they really want to do something with customer satisfaction and recall penetration, they should do something special for people.”

Martha Samuel, 68, of Lake Charles, La., owns a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that she bought new. Earlier this week she was waiting for parts to arrive to fix her ignition switch.

Samuel heard about the ignition switch recall through the media and opened her mail from GM. She suggested car companies use a different color envelope with recalls to grab attention. She said the mailing should be “designed in some way that alerted you that this is something that is not usual, (it’s) important, not just your regular mail.”

In February, NHTSA adopted requirements for recall letters to help distinguish them from other mail. Envelopes must display “Important Safety Recall Information” in red capital letters and feature the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA logos.

Starting Aug. 14, automakers must provide a free online recall search by 17-character vehicle identification number on their websites, allowing owners and potential buyers to see if a recall has been completed; databases must be updated at least weekly. NHTSA’s site, www.safercar.gov also will offer the search.

Ford, Honda and Acura already have recall look-up features on their websites using VINs; many automakers have similar services for customers who create accounts.

mburden@detroitnews.com
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