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As Carmakers Turn Up The Recalls, Consumers Tune Out

The number of vehicles recalled has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
The number of vehicles recalled has more than doubled in the past 20 years.

In the past week, Volkswagen recalled 150,000 Passats because of potential hood problems that could damage the headlights, and Honda recalled 900,000 Odyssey vans because of a potential fire hazard.

Those moves follow the recent General Motors recall of 1.6 million vehicles over a faulty ignition switch, which has been linked to 12 deaths. It took the company nearly a decade to inform the public of the problem.

The number of vehicles recalled has more than doubled over the past 20 years — but most recalls go unnoticed by the general public, says Scott Oldham, vice president at Edmunds.com.

"I don't think there's a manufacturer out there that isn't executing a recall at any given time," he says.

Karl Brauer, a senior director at Kelley Blue Book, says manufacturers often recall vehicles out of an overabundance of caution.

"You could argue that more recalls actually makes it worse to get people to actually listen to them, because it just starts to become noise," he says. "It used to be a bigger deal to hear a recall headline in the newspaper or on TV. Now, you kind of hear them a lot, so it might be easier to tune it out."

That's partly because most recall notices are mailed — sometimes not even first-class — so it's pretty easy for a letter from Chrysler or Honda to look like junk mail.

Sean Kane at Safety Research and Strategies, a research group that specializes in car and consumer safety, says response for newer cars is fairly high, into the 70 percent range.

"Compared to other products or even other motor vehicle products like tires or tire restraints, it's quite good," Kane says. "But if you think about what that means in context of the cars that are not being repaired, that's not so good. And that number tends to drop off as the cars get older."

Manufacturers usually tell consumers about recalls through registration information from your state; the more a car changes hands, the harder it can be to get to the actual driver. Some dealers say privacy laws make it harder to get numbers and other information for current car owners.

But if, as a driver, you want to be proactive, you can find out if your car is being recalled by going to the government website Recalls.gov. A new law will require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make that website easier to navigate; it's currently a bit cumbersome.

Kane says it's ultimately the responsibility of carmakers to do a more effective job of letting customers know.

"That means spending the time and the money to do it," says Kane. "It's funny how they can all reach you when they want to sell you a new product, but somehow they don't always do such a good job when they need to get their product back for repairs."

Everyone in the auto business, however, will tell drivers the same thing: When you get a recall notice, open it and take your car in to the dealer. Recall repairs are free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.