Owner is ultimately responsible for fixing recalled car

Phil Berg
Car Culture

There’s a saying that the worst-running car in a repair shop’s parking lot belongs to the mechanic.

It’s the only car that he’s not being paid to fix, so the priority is low on his repair list. However, all the mechanics I know eventually fix their cars, and the problems they tolerate don’t present a danger — meaning the brakes, steering and safety equipment like air bags and belts all work.

But a lot of the rest of us are less diligent.

Record-setting recalls of cars from automakers last year totaled 63.9 million vehicles, about a fifth of all the cars and trucks on the road in the U.S. That number’s so mind-boggling (that number of cars would stretch eight times around the world), it would mean that to fix all of last year’s auto issues, all of the country’s 17,000 dealers would have to repair 15 cars every day for an entire year.

And Neil Steincamp, managing director of Farmington Hills financial advice firm Stout Risius Ross, says he expects the number of recalls to increase. “I believe we will see an increase in recall volumes,” he told an industry audience in February.

Last year’s big recalls included more than 19 million cars by Honda for faulty air bags. There were 12 million cars recalled by GM for faulty ignition switches that would disable the air bags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined carmakers a record $126 million in civil penalties, says Steincamp. That’s more than all the fines they’ve levied since NHTSA started to enforce recalls in 1966.

This flurry of action is a combination of the pressure automakers are under in a fiercely competitive industry and the new enforcement direction from NHTSA.

David Friedman, acting NHTSA administrator for almost all of 2014, explained during the GM ignition switch recall that his mission was to send notice to the automakers: “There were some clear lessons learned that I wanted to make sure every automaker knew regarding the poor way GM handled this.” And his successor last December, Mark Rosekind, is going to be even tougher: “In a safety culture, if people aren’t worried, they aren’t going to act in a proactive safety way. NHTSA needs to be the enforcer.”

But there’s a weak link in the recall system: It all relies on vehicle owners to actually take their cars to the dealer and get them fixed.

Like the hard-working mechanic, car owners don’t get paid to get their cars fixed.

Steincamp says about a third of all cars recalled are never brought in to be fixed by their owners. That means 21 million broken cars recalled in 2014 will never get fixed. The number of cars recalled in the U.S. but never fixed, and still on the road, is estimated to be 46 million today. That’s about one in every six vehicles on the road with something broken.

It’s serious: One of the five deaths resulting from faulty air bags in Hondas happened in a car that had been recalled but never fixed.

Of course, a lot of recalls are not for safety reasons. But, still, lots of folks are driving around in broken cars. Steincamp says that the fix completion rates for recalls are slowly increasing, due to carmakers using strategies such as texting, contacting car owners through social media, multiple emails, and improving websites that vehicle owners visit — both at the automakers and at NHTSA.

Owners report that they don’t take their cars in to be fixed because it’s inconvenient.

Often, car owners don’t understand that it’s important to do. Some don’t think their car is involved. And consumers sometimes won’t take their cars to the dealer because they don’t believe the car will be fixed correctly.

In addition, the older the car, the less likely it will be brought in for a fix. In fact, Steincamp says that after a car is 10 years old, it may never show up for a fix. Finally, it’s sometimes hard to track down the owner. Rules for contacting car owners vary by state, and there is no national database, and changing these rules impacts privacy.

So it’s up to us car owners — let’s get our cars fixed. At the very least, it preserves the car’s value.