Car recalls: what are they and why are they important?

Aftermath of crashed car, blown air bags and shattered windscreen

Recalls are when car makers ask owners of their cars to return them to dealerships to have checks or repairs carried out, frequently because of safety-related problems.

They come about because cars are such hugely complicated pieces of machinery. With thousands of parts being asked to interact with each other repeatedly, manufacturing weaknesses or design flaws in components can sometimes come to light over time. In the UK, around a million vehicles, a year are called back to dealers so that safety checks or repairs can be performed.

They involve features such as a car’s brakes, airbags, steering, fuel systems and even less obvious problems, such as the seats reclining unexpectedly. In extreme cases, such issues might be life-threatening, as with the ventilation switches that can cause fires in Vauxhall Zafiras. Here’s all you need to know about recalls.

What happens if your vehicle is recalled?

Usually, the manufacturer will contact you explaining what the problem is, what the implications of it are and who you need to contact to get it rectified. You don’t have to pay to have these faults put right, as long as you use one of the manufacturer’s franchised dealers.

How do you know if your vehicle has been recalled?

If a vehicle is being recalled for a safety problem, car makers must register it with the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). This holds a database of all the vehicle recalls including the reason behind them.

Why it’s important to have recall work done

It’s every car owner’s legal responsibility to keep their car roadworthy and ensure it’s safe to drive whenever they get in it. You can be fined £2500, be banned from driving, and get three penalty points for driving a car that’s unroadworthy. If you’re buying a used car, it’s worthwhile checking if there have been any recalls and then asking the seller for proof that the recall work has been done. If you already own a car, check the DVSA database and see if your car has ever been subjected to a recall. Remember that recalls can occur when cars are quite old.

What sort of recalls are there?

Broadly speaking there are three types of recall. With the first kind, there are no foreseen safety implications. The obvious example is Volkswagens with the so-called defeat device fitted to their diesel engines. These cars are being recalled so Volkswagen can alter them to comply with exhaust emissions legislation. In less high profile cases, owners may never know about these recalls. That’s because the work is done when the cars are serviced by main dealers.

Other recalls are safety related and there are two types of these. The first relates to flaws that could cause problems immediately, such as the Vauxhall Zafira’s ventilation system. The second concerns faults that may be safe now but could turn into problems over time.

Why does car makers issue recalls?

Car makers may receive complaints from owners, look into them and decide they need to conduct a recall. Alternatively, the car companies may discover problems internally, or be alerted to them by suppliers. Toyota says fewer than 10 cases coming to light via its dealer network will trigger the preliminary stages of a recall. The result could see recall notices go out to tens of thousands of cars.

In the worst cases, recalls are triggered following deaths of drivers. In the US, defective airbag inflators were shooting out shrapnel when the airbags were deployed. This was found to be the fault of component supplier Takata which supplies airbags to millions of cars worldwide.

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Mandy Weston

Mandy Weston

Mandy is an ex-mechanic, with 22 years’ experience in the motor industry. As an in-house motoring expert, Mandy is the go-to woman for any relevant questions that our customers have; both garages and drivers. From specific problems with your car to general maintenance, Mandy is a reliable source of information and advice. Her passion for motoring is a huge factor to her success and the huge wealth of knowledge that she has. She now uses her remarkable grasp of the industry to write regular content for our readers to help drivers understand their car better, avoid being ripped off by garages and save money on their motoring requirements.