Auto companies recalled about 20 million vehicles in 2010, led by Toyota's 7 million. That's nearly twice the 11.5 million new vehicles sold last year.
But automotive recalls are not created equally. Some can be for a minor annoyance, while others can be for possible defects that make the vehicle unsafe to drive. The majority are in that first category, but even those should be addressed. Typically, about one-fourth of owners who receive a recall notice never bother to get the vehicle fixed.
If your vehicle is recalled, you should be notified by mail, a process that can be annoyingly slow. You may hear about a recall of your vehicle in the news, but it may be weeks before you receive the actual notice. Be aware too that once a problem is discovered, a manufacturer may have to design a part and have it manufactured, which slows the process, too. That happened with the Ford truck recall of faulty cruise control switches that could cause a fire. For the initial recall, dealers were simply disconnecting the switch, then asked customers to return when the switches finally became available.
When you get the notice, contact your dealer. By law it does not have to be the dealer that sold the car originally, but dealers may move their own customers up in the line. If you have the work done by an independent mechanic, and not a dealer, you may end up paying for the repairs yourself.
If you are not the original owner, or you are looking for a used vehicle, it's a good idea to search the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration database to see if your vehicle has been recalled, and if so, for what. Once you know that, a dealer can check your vehicle's identification number and see if the recall had been addressed. The NHTSA website is safercar.gov.
Keep in mind, too, that your vehicle may be affected by what is called a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, which many consumers confuse with a recall. These bulletins typically do not address safety or emissions issues, and they are more a way to let dealers know what may be causing specific problems in a certain vehicle. Sometimes the manufacturer will mail an owner a notification of a TSB, but not always.
Finally, know that just because a certain make, model and year of vehicle is recalled, it may or may not include your vehicle. Sometimes a problem only occurs in a few vehicles that, for example, were built with a faulty batch of parts. Also, depending on where you live, some recalls may address problems that you don't face — such as issues related to very hot or cold weather.
If there is an upside to recalls like the ones that affected Toyota, it's that the recalls have given dealers a chance to enhance their reputation for taking care of their customers.