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Car recalls: What you need to know

10/30/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST
While the near-constant news of car recalls could leave consumers feeling a bit lost, there are ways for vehicle owners to ensure they don't miss out on repairs.

CBC's Marketplace looked at the reality that millions of drivers with recalled cars face and the challenges they have getting information and finding solutions. Watch the story "Recall Rants" Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC-TV.

CBC's the fifth estate also investigated deaths linked to the GM ignition switch recall. Watch the investigation "The Switch from Hell" Friday at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT) on CBC-TV.

It’s been a record year for recalls, and more seem to come every week.

General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan and Toyota are among the manufacturers that have issued massive recalls in the past two years for issues including defective air bags, fuel leaks, ignition switches and power windows that can catch fire. In total, tens of millions of vehicles across North America are affected.

“It’s [manufacturers’] legal obligation to tell you the car has some kind of safety issue and to give you some kind of information on how to protect yourself in the interim,” Mark Whinton, a mechanic and retired automotive instructor, told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington.

In the face of all those recalls, many Canadians could be feeling a little lost about what to do. 

Here’s a recall roadmap.

Are you on the list?

Manufacturers have to notify you when there’s a recall notice, but if you’re the second, third or fourth owner of the car, the company may be sending the notice to a previous owner.

This could be part of the reason why an estimated 25 per cent of recalled vehicles never get fixed, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Than means it’s a good idea to be proactive and find out if there’s a recall notice — or several notices — out there for your vehicle.

Transport Canada has a database you can search, though Whinton says it’s a good idea to check the NHTSA database, too.

Whinton also suggests calling the manufacturer to make sure it has your up-to-date information in its files so you have a better chance of getting notified if there’s a problem in the future.

“If your car’s listed, contact the dealer right away, say ‘Hey I’ve seen this online, is my car part of the recall?’ and they’ll do a more thorough check,” says Whinton.

Watch for the upsell

You don’t have to pay for repairs to parts that have been recalled, but some drivers could still end up with a bill.

“[In] some of the owner notification letters that get sent out for recalls, they usually mention somewhere in there that the repair is free,” Whinton says, “but if they come across additional work that needs to be done, there could be a charge for that.”

Any extra work that the dealer may recommend is not mandatory and not covered. Whinton says that some dealers feel that “the recall issue of a car is an opportunity to build a business relationship with the customer.”

“I’m afraid some of the people are getting some more additional work done without a clear understanding that it’s optional that they’re doing,” he says.

You may face delays

So you’ve found out that your car has a recall and you bring it in. But then what? Many car owners face long delays before getting a car fixed.

Manufacturers do need to fix the car, but there is no requirement that they fix it right away.

Whinton says that there can be a delay if parts aren’t ready, but this can be a huge disadvantage to consumers, some of whom might feel pressured to keep driving a car that they need but don’t feel is safe.

Ask about a rental

Have to wait for your car to be repaired? Manufacturers aren’t legally required to provide you with a rental car, but you may be able to get one.

“There’s no law regarding these issues, it would simply be a matter of goodwill on the part of the dealer,” Whinton says.

He says you’re more likely to get a rental if your car is new and under warranty or if it’s an expensive, luxury car.

“People with more expensive cars get treated a little differently and those people more often than not seem to get a rental car or free car where the others might not,” Whinton says. “But always ask.”

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