Study suggests NHTSA could communicate recall information more effectively

December 5, 2017

Tyson Fisher


What good is a recall notification if you never receive it? That was the crux of a Government Accountability Office study that looked into how consumers receive and access vehicle recall information. GAO found that a major issue was a lack of electronic communications to consumers.

In a focus group sample of 94 consumers, GAO found that most people preferred receiving recall information by at least one electronic means in addition to standard mail. Despite the desire of the general public, only seven of the 94 studied consumers reported receiving such electronic communications such as text messages or emails.

The gap between consumer preferences and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s current procedures can be an issue for younger motorists who correspond primarily through electronic means. Consumers who spend a significant amount of time away from home, such as truck drivers, may not receive the recall notification sent to their mailbox in a reasonable amount of time.

At least one manufacturer reported using electronic communications to notify consumers. Representatives from the manufacturer reported higher recall completion rates as a result.

Last year, the NHTSA issued a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to inform consumers of recalls by electronic means as well as ground mail.

Additionally, GAO’s study discovered that NHTSA’s recall website may not be user-friendly to many people. Some consumers found the search results for their specific vehicles confusing. Others reported issues with the website not displaying “model options using plain language,” according to the study.

Although NHTSA is in the middle of consolidating its websites, the completion date is unknown. GAO worries that, in the meantime, consumers may remain confused when looking up recall information, potentially reducing effectiveness of the information.

GAO also asked consumers what factors motivated them to remedy a recall. Popular answers included safety, time to schedule/complete repair and the availability of a loaner vehicle. In some cases, consumers decided not to get repairs since they determined the defect “didn’t sound very urgent.” Some focus group members reported that the risk description was too vague.

According to the study, recalls have increased significantly over the past several years, from nearly 13 million in 2011 to more than 51 million in 2016. In 2014, General Motors recalled more than 8 million vehicles because of an ignition switch defect. One year later, Takata announced a defect with its airbags, which affected 19 manufacturers and led to a recall of approximately 34 million vehicles.

NHTSA documents reveal that recall completion rates are unacceptably low. In 2014, only 67 percent of recalled light vehicles had been repaired.