Automobile Recall Information Could Be Communicated More Effectively by NHTSA: GAO Study

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that many consumers may have difficulty finding and interpreting automobile recall information published by federal safety regulators, which could ultimately lead to many vehicles with dangerous defects going unrepaired. 

The government oversight agency published the results of study into the effectiveness of auto recalls (PDF) on December 4, citing the struggles many vehicle owners face when attempting to find and interpret the safety recalls issued on their particular vehicles.

The GAO study was initiated to identify whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was effective in notifying consumers who possess vehicles with open recalls, and whether those details were relayed in manner consumers could understand.

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Currently, the NHTSA practices include releasing an announcement of a vehicle safety recall on the website. That website also has a database consumers may search through using their vehicle make, model and year, or Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). In addition to the website search function, the NHTSA ensures automobile manufacturers are notifying impacted vehicles owners by mail.

While mailed notice and the ability to search the database online may provide the opportunity to discover the recalls, it may not be the most efficient way to relay recall information, the GAO found.

Automobile recalls have been steadily on the rise over the last five years, with the NHTSA citing sharp increases from about 13 million recalls in 2011 to over 51 million announced in 2016. With the drastic increases in vehicle safety recalls, the GAO recommends finding a more effective means to communicate recall notifications, as well as laying out the consumers’ required actions to schedule repairs in a simple manner.

GAO researchers collected data from a focus group of 94 consumers to determine their preferred means of communication and most effective way of notifying them of an open recall. They found that the preferred and most effective means may be through electronic communication, such as email, text messages, or a phone call, and that the NHTSA has failed to capitalize on the technology.

The report found that the focus group had trouble completing automobile recall related tasks, such as searching for recalls on their specific make and model, and understanding the recall language.

Focus group subjects also struggled to navigate the website to find their specific make and model of vehicle. GAO officials have formally requested a usability study of the website by an independent third party., which would identify ways to make using the website less complicated.

Electronic forms of communication can be the most effective methods for relaying the information due to the majority of the population using email and smartphones, the GAO noted. This type of communication is also useful because many consumers, like truck drivers, travel for work or spend weeks away from home and may not receive mailed notifications.

In September 2016, the NHTSA issued a proposed rule that would require automobile manufacturers to send both mailed notices and electronic notifications to consumers with recalled vehicles.


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