It’s probably the last thing you want to be bothered with, but when one comes in the mail, you need to know what to do if you get an auto safety recall notice. Why? The statistics are pretty grim: Annually, more than 42,000 lives are lost as a result of vehicles that have some kind of defect.

It isn’t as if consumers are totally in the dark about potentially life-threatening defects in the millions of cars, crossovers, SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans on the road. That’s because the federal government requires automotive manufacturers to notify owners of both the defect and the proposed remedy to any potential defect or safety-related condition in all their products.

Called auto safety recalls or simply auto recalls, these notices are published in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website, and receive widespread news coverage in print, radio, television and online media outlets.

More than 20 million vehicles were recalled in 2010 alone and if it seems like there are more and more recalls, there’s a good reason for that. The NHTSA has increased fines for manufacturers who do not comply with the requirement to issue a recall quickly enough.

So, what’s the process? What should you do and when?

Watch the news. – If you read, hear or see a report of a safety recall that involves your year, make and model vehicle, find out more about it. Go to the manufacturer’s website to see if there’s a statement about it. Check out the latest recalls on the NHTSA website or sign up for email notifications of any recalls affecting your vehicle.

Pay attention to the recall notice you receive. – This is your call to action. When you get the notice in the mail (and it has to be sent via U.S. first class mail to comply with NHTSA requirements), determine when the safety recall will be conducted and what you are to do. The manufacturer will clearly spell out the dates, if parts need to be ordered, and other details, such as how long the repair is expected to take and other items. Safety recalls are conducted at no charge to the owners of vehicles affected in the campaign.

Don’t put off taking your car to the dealer to have it fixed. – You don’t ever want to jeopardize the life of you, your family or passengers, or those of other drivers and passengers, or pedestrians. By delaying getting your car to the dealer to accommodate the necessary repairs, you’re doing just that. It isn’t worth taking the chance. Even a seemingly minor safety recall, such as windshield wiper malfunction or headlight or mirror placement or functionality, may not be so minor in certain situations and/or weather conditions when visibility is compromised.

Make sure all recalls have been taken care of before buying or selling a vehicle. – A recent study by CarFax revealed that over 2.7 million used cars for sale online had safety defects that were never fixed. Insist that the seller of any used vehicle you’re considering show you proof that all recalls were completed, or, to be on the safe side, get a vehicle history report that will show what’s been done. Similarly, if you are going to sell your vehicle, make sure any and all outstanding recalls have been tended to – and show documentation to prospective buyers.

    For more information on this subject, see this comprehensive article that appeared in The Washington Times.

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