Imperfect recall

If your vehicle has a safety flaw, make sure you hear about it

Is the vehicle you’re driving as safe as it could be? There’s a chance it might not be, since thousands of Canadian motorists never receive notices alerting them to dangerous design flaws with their vehicles.

I’ve fielded three complaints from owners of General Motors vehicles affected by a 1995 recall. All three motorists lost steering control while driving and crashed (one ended up in a ditch). All three were surprised to discover after the crashes that their vehicles had been recalled, since none had received recall notices. The vehicles affected by this recall are: 1990-1991 Chevrolet Luminas, 1988-1991 Buick Regals, 1988-1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes and 1988-1991 Pontiac Grands Prix. Five years after the recall, only 56 per cent of the affected vehicles had corrective work done, according to General Motors of Canada spokesman Stew Low. It’s unknown how many of these vehicles are still on the road.

Lars Eif, Transport Canada’s chief of defect investigations and recalls, says the average completion rate for recalls is about 60 per cent. “There’s a great variation in completion rates, depending on the age of a vehicle,” notes Eif. “The older the vehicle, the lower the completion rate.”

Elusive owners
Recall notices often don’t reach owners because manufacturers don’t have up-to-date records. Many motorists never think to inform the manufacturer of a new address. Others buy a used car and don’t notify the manufacturer of the ownership change. Recalls can be issued years after a car is produced, making it hard to track the current owner if the manufacturer’s database is out of date.

Don’t count on the dealer who services your car to act as your go-between. “Some people believe that if they move and start using a new dealer, that dealer will automatically give the new address to the manufacturer,” says Eif. “Dealers don’t necessarily do that.”

Buying a used vehicle from a dealer is also no guarantee it will be free of recall-related problems. I learned of one angry consumer who was dismayed when he found out that the used 1995 Chrysler Cirrus a relative had bought from a Chrysler dealer had four outstanding recalls at the time of sale. The recalls weren’t picked up during an Ontario safety standards check. “There’s no legal requirement to check for recalls during certification,” notes Eif.

Protect yourself
Last year alone, nearly 1.9 million vehicles were affected by 234 recall campaigns in Canada. Recalls are issued for safety-related defects such as fuel leaks that could cause fires, transmissions that slip out of park, wheels that could fall off, failure-prone brakes, hoods that can pop up unexpectedly and suspension or engine mount failures that could cause loss of steering control.

In order to notify a vehicle owner, a manufacturer must have the owner’s name, full mailing address, make and model of the vehicle, plus the17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) located on the dash near the windshield. Recalls are tracked according to the VIN. Even if a particular model has been recalled, it doesn’t mean every vehicle built is affected. Recalls can also vary according to geography. The GM recall cited above applies to vehicles registered east of the Ontario/Manitoba border.

Although automakers in Canada aren’t required by law to fix recall problems for free, Eif says “99.9 per cent of the time they do.” To avoid missing recall notices, ensure your vehicle’s manufacturer has the required information. Fill out the form at the back of the owner’s manual, write the manufacturer or call the customer-service department. This precaution can help keep your vehicle as safe as it can be.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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