What to do if your car is recalled

We've all seen the flood of news about auto safety recalls: Honda for air bags, Jeep for brakes, General Motors for faulty ignition switches. But what if one of those recalls involves your car?

More and more Americans are having to cope with that issue as the number of recalls continues at near all-time highs. Last year hit a record of 64 million U.S. vehicles recalled, powered by the 27 million from General Motors (GM) involving the faulty ignition switches now blamed for 124 deaths.

So far this year, at least 32 million vehicles have been recalled -- greater than all previous years except 2014 -- according to figures compiled by The Detroit News.

Why so many recalls now? Starting with the GM case, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been much tougher in insisting that auto companies and suppliers issue recalls for safety problems, and it's backing that up with fines when companies don't comply.

In the latest case, NHTSA this week fined Takata -- the maker of defective air bags that can explode and spew shrapnel-like shards of metal -- $70 million with an option to boost that to $200 million if the company doesn't abide by the conditions of the consent agreement.

Auto safety advocate Joan Claybrook, herself a former head of NHTSA, has often been critical of the agency in the past. But now, she told CBS MoneyWatch in an interview: "They are doing a whole lot better. The new administrator, Mark Rosekind, has a different, tougher attitude toward enforcement."

If that recall big picture suddenly focuses on your car, what should you do? If you learn from news outlets that your car from your model year is involved in a recall, take these steps:

  • Double-check that your individual car, SUV or pickup really is affected. Some recalls cover only part of the vehicles produced in a given model year. Go to the NHTSA recall lookup tool and put in your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). You should find the VIN on your state registration document or at the base of the windshield on the driver's side in most cars. The website will show any outstanding recalls with recall ID numbers.
  • Look for a letter from the auto company. This is your official notification of the recall. But if you have moved or are the second or third owner of the car, the letter may not reach you. If you don't have a letter, take a printout of the NHTSA report when you go in for the fix.
  • Schedule a free repair with any dealership of your brand. (The auto company pays the dealership to make the repair). When you make the appointment, give the scheduler the number of your recall along with your VIN number.

With most recalls, you can schedule the fix as easily as any other service visit. But in a massive recall like the Takata air bags installed by 12 auto manufacturers and involving 19 million vehicles, the necessary parts may not be readily available.

The danger of exploding air bags in greater when the car has been in hot, humid climates like South Florida or the Gulf Coast. NHTSA has ordered that the necessary parts go to those high-risk areas first. So, if you live in such an area, keep checking with dealers to see when you can get a replacement air bag.

However, a Honda spokesman said the company has adequate parts for the current pace of recalls and has completed repairs on 42 percent of affected cars in high-risk areas and 41 percent nationally.

But if you've been lucky so far and haven't been affected by any recalls, don't just ignore the whole issue. The complexity of modern cars and the more aggressive stance by NHTSA makes it likely that a high level of recalls will continue. Your car could be next.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.