When are auto recalls initiated?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is housed under the U.S. Department of Transportation, has the authority to initiate motor vehicle recalls under certain circumstances. Generally, this can occur in two situations: if a vehicle or vehicular equipment is not compliant with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or if an auto defect exists that affects the safety of a group of vehicles.

The FMVSS must be followed by all vehicles in the U.S. that are used on public roads. These standards establish the requirements for any equipment that is designed to protect those in vehicles from injuries or fatalities. The standards also regulate any equipment that affects a vehicle’s ability to operate safely. Air bags, child restraints and brakes are all examples of equipment that must comply with the FMVSS.  

Defects are considered to be safety-related if they meet two criteria. First, the defects must place motor vehicle safety at risk. Second, the defect must exist in a group of products or vehicles, not just in a single isolated incident. For example, if a car manufacturer sells a line of vehicles with wheels containing a defect that causes drivers to lose vehicular control, those vehicles may be recalled due to a safety-related defect.

Some manufacturers choose to initiate recalls without being prompted by the NHTSA. Companies that do not engage in recalls voluntarily may be compelled to do so via an NHTSA order or due to the agency’s investigations.

NHTSA investigations are often initiated by consumer complaints, so the agency encourages the public to notify them should they experience any safety-related problems with their vehicles or their vehicles’ equipment.

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