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My Car Is Recalled, But There's No Fix Yet: What Do I Do?

CARS.COM — The death of a young actor in June spotlighted an increasingly common issue for car owners: Your car faces a recall for a safety defect, but there’s no fix yet. The question: Do you drive a car with a known hazard until they figure it out, or let the car sit?

Related: Is Your Car Part of the Takata Airbag Recall?

“Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin was in that situation with his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. While his death still is under investigation, he was killed in an apparent rollaway accident by a vehicle recalled in April for a confusing electronic shifter whose fix was estimated initially to be months away. In fact, the same week as the death, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles began sending dealers a software repair for the shifter in the 800,000-plus recalled vehicles — Grand Cherokee SUVs and Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans — and recently added about 13,000 Maserati sedans.

What Can the Feds Do to Help?

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind has said it is a priority to keep defective vehicles off the road. His agency has encouraged automakers to provide loaner cars to owners when their vehicles are under serious recalls and a repair is not yet available, such as many in the ongoing Takata airbag recall, but automakers’ policies have varied. At the May announcement of the Takata recall expansion, Rosekind, who said he has a car waiting for the Takata repair, explained that the agency does not currently have the authority to order an automaker to provide loaners.

Safety advocates have pushed for loaners and more — and faster action by regulators and automakers — on serious defects to meet owners’ needs, while keeping unsafe vehicles off the road.

The Center for Auto Safety called Yelchin’s death “the latest example of industry and government incompetence in the face of vehicle safety defects.” It noted that FCA was promising a fix “in the fourth quarter” for vehicles recalled in April and under NHTSA investigation since August 2015. It called for FCA to tell owners to park the cars until fixed, provide a detailed repair timeline, and offer loaners in the meantime or buy back the vehicles.

“If there is imminent harm, you’ve got to move faster,” said Clarence Ditlow, CAS executive director, in an interview. He believes regulators and automakers can make that happen. Noting FCA’s acceleration of the shifter repair by months, he said, “They had a fix four days after Yelchin died. They could have had it four days before. It’s that simple.”

What Can I Do While I’m Waiting for a Recall Fix?

  • Pay attention to recall notices; they may contain important suggestions on how to use your car safely in the meantime.
  • Carefully follow any included instructions letting you know how to safely operate the car before the repair can be made. In the FCA shifter recall, the company provided instructions in how to avoid the danger until it was updated.
  • Keep in regular touch with your dealership regarding availability of parts for a repair.
  • You legally can dump the car if you can’t wait and don’t want to drive it. You should, however, inform prospective buyers (who can find out themselves at the vehicle identification number open recall lookup) and be prepared to take a hit on the price to compensate a buyer who is willing to wait. See advice here from lending site Bankrate.com on how to sell a recalled car.
  • Before buying a replacement vehicle, check its VIN for open recalls so you don’t overpay or end up buying a different problem.

Will Automakers Loan Me a Car on Their Own?

Some automakers have provided alternative transport in the case of a major recall, but that’s rare, except for cars still under warranty, and then only for the time needed to do the actual repair. Notable exceptions:

  • GM mounted a massive rental program to provide loaners in the 1.6-million-vehicle ignition switch recall, but that was after what came to 124 fatalities for which the company settled cases. It also helped owners of these generally older cars who didn’t have adequate insurance for the loaner — a significant issue for many.
  • Honda — whose vehicles were involved in nine of the 10 U.S. Takata airbag fatalities — has authorized dealers to loan vehicles to owners whose cars need a driver-side inflator replaced. The company says it will review requests by owners who need only a passenger-side repair. Honda also has made arrangements so the teenage owners, usually excluded from renting cars, can get a loaner.

In both cases, these automakers have done this on their own and were not required by regulations to provide the cars. But NHTSA also encourages owners to request one in situations where they are afraid to use their vehicle.

Why So Many Recalled Cars?

There are millions of vehicles in circulation with flaws potentially dangerous to drivers or passengers, and there likely will be more owners caught in such situations. Why?

  • Cars are getting ever newer and more complicated parts as automakers strive to reduce weight and achieve better gas mileage.
  • At the same time, car shoppers want better entertainment and safety technology, up to and including autonomous driving features that can take over some vehicle systems.
  • Problems with these cars are harder to spot in development and if they aren’t caught, creating fixes after the fact is more complex.
  • Add to that the fact that any given recall will likely affect more vehicles because automakers are aggressively trying to build more cars with common platforms and parts.
  • Automakers are even widely sharing components, with Takata airbag inflators the easiest example.

The Takata airbag recall is now the largest in history, with up to 40 million vehicles affected so far but up to 70 million total potentially needing a repair or replacement. The airbag inflators can explode with too much force, shooting shrapnel at occupants, and 10 people have been killed in the U.S. While there is a fix, building enough safe airbags for all the cars affected will at best take until 2019 under NHTSA’s parts and repair plan. Only about 8.9 million inflators had been replaced by mid-June.

Why Are Bad Cars Left on the Road?

Why do regulators let an automaker recall a car without a remedy in place? In fact, they require it. Automakers must report a discovered defect to NHTSA within five business days or face recently increased civil fines of up to $105 million. That’s to start: Criminal investigations into delays in serious cases cost much more — GM paid $900 million to settle an investigation into its ignition switch recall; Toyota paid $1.2 billion in its sudden acceleration recalls. Not to mention no automaker wants to be caught dragging its feet on safety.

After reporting to NHTSA, the automakers then must notify owners within 60 days. And the rules specifically say that having no fix, or not knowing the cause, are not grounds to delay notification of owners. And even where a cause and fix are known, the automaker must work with suppliers to produce the parts needed to repair what can be millions of vehicles.

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