CARS.COM — Automotive historians will likely call this the decade of recalls. Faulty airbag inflators, electronic gearshifts and ignition switches and their potentially deadly consequences continue to make headlines. No doubt the news can seem overwhelming, so let’s a step back: What is a recall, anyway? How long have they been around, and what should you do if you get one?
Related: Why Can Dealers Sell Used Cars With Unfixed Recalls?
Here’s a primer.
How a Safety Recall Works
A safety recall occurs when a manufacturer violates a federal motor vehicle safety standard — a lengthy set of requirements for safety-related car parts or related equipment (such as car seats) — or has a defect that otherwise poses an “unreasonable risk to safety,” explained Bryan Thomas, communications director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since the current recall system originated in the 1960s, automakers have issued safety recalls for more than half a billion vehicles and equipment.
Not all recalls are safety-related, but most of the recalls Cars.com covers are safety-related. Automakers can issue recalls voluntarily or NHTSA can impose a recall by court order. Investigations often originate from complaints that consumers have filed with NHTSA.
Safety recalls were established in early form by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. The first safety standard came a year later. Recalls piled up quickly: In fewer than four years, automakers had issued recalls for more than 10 million cars.
With a few exceptions, automakers have recalled between 10 million and 20 million cars per year despite a steady increase in the number of cars on the road. But amid recalls for faulty GM ignitions and Takata airbag inflators, the number of recalls soared in 2014 and 2015. Each year saw more than 50 million cars recalled: