The track record of the American consumer in responding to automotive recalls is not overly impressive.
The reasons behind this apparent lack of appropriate response are complicated and compounded by the American lifestyle, by legal loopholes in recall law, and by OEM lag time in supplying dealerships with the necessary parts to repair recalled vehicles.
Let’s look at the astounding recall statistics first. A record 63.9 million vehicles were recalled in the United States in 2014 — more than twice as many vehicles than the previous record of 30.8 million in 2004, according to an article in .
There may be more than 46 million unrepaired cars and trucks in the United States. That’s one in five cars on the road nationwide that have at least one safety recall which has never been fixed. In particular, many family-oriented vehicles — one in three minivans and one in five SUVs — have unfixed recalls, all according to CarFax’s annual research.
So, why do we have this problem and how can we fix it?
The American lifestyle is part of the problem.
How many important activities does the average American consumer juggle daily? Work, family obligations, commuting, groceries, exercise, keeping up with national/international (bad) news, friends/social life, community obligations, housework, yard work, hobbies. How many emails and text messages does he/she respond to daily? How many phone calls? Getting tired yet?
Then, enter the automotive recall notices for those 63.9 million vehicles – notices on TV, in the mailbox, online. Pressing priorities and limited free time means acting on these recall notices may fall far down on the average consumer’s to-do list, if it makes it there at all.
And, it’s not just automotive recalls that are swamping consumers. According to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, consumers were deluged with 2,363 recalls, or about 6.5 recalls each day, covering consumer products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food, in the year sampled (2011), as cited in USA Today.
“Overloaded,” “fatigued,” and ultimately “numbed” — these words seem most apt in describing American consumers in the face of today’s recall blizzard of information.
In actuality, the response to recalls for newer vehicles is not so bad. However, the response to recalls for older vehicles – the majority of vehicles on the road — is appalling.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers reports,For newer vehicles, the completion rate averages 83 percent, while that rate falls almost in half to 44 percent for vehicles 5-10 years old. The completion rate drops again to 15 percent for vehicles older than 10 years. Yet, today, the average age of vehicles on the road is 11.4 years.”
This is certainly cause for concern. The Alliance is now sponsoring a research project, which will be the first collective effort to understand what motivates consumers to get their recalled vehicles repaired. The Alliance has retained Public Opinion Strategies, a leading public opinion research firm, to do qualitative and quantitative research to better understand the problem. Results are expected sometime this summer.
But consumer lifestyle is only part of the problem. There’s a second major factor impacting recall response: A legal loophole is putting millions of consumers at risk of not knowing their used cars are under a recall notice.
Currently, no federal regulation forces an individual seller or dealer to properly repair a vehicle before selling it to prospective buyers. Additionally, the seller is not obliged by the law to inform the buyer about any problems within the car, according to CBS Detroit.
As a result, many used car owners are not aware that their vehicles have been recalled.
The third major factor impacting consumer response to recalls is the shortfall in the availability of automotive parts. Manufacturers do not always have enough repair parts to meet the current demands of dealerships serving consumers who want their recalled vehicles repaired. Recall notices may be broadcast weeks or even months before sufficient numbers of repair parts can be manufactured and delivered to dealerships to fix recall defects.
Consumers who actually do bring their cars in for needed repairs can get discouraged when they find out parts may not be available for months, and they may decide not to return to get their cars fixed at all. Or, next time there is a recall, they may postpone coming in for repairs, figuring the parts won’t be readily available.
What is being done to correct or mitigate all these problems?
In the wake of last year’s ignition-switch recall, GM said it studied the characteristics of customers who weren’t getting recall repairs. The company redesigned mailings with different imagery to convey the urgency of the repairs, added online outreach through YouTube and Yahoo! and offered loaner cars. Some dealers in Texas even offered tickets to the state fair as an incentive,” according to an article in Bloomberg Business.
Even with all that effort, which made 98 percent of customers aware of the defect, repairs still went undone,” Julie Heisel, GM’s director of customer relationship management, said at a recent symposium. “When GM evaluated what worked, customers often mentioned that it took multiple mailings and extra phone calls and assurances of loaner cars to get the deal done,” Heisel said, according to the Bloomberg article.
In summary, what can be done to improve consumer response to recalls?
1. Manufacturers need to effectively communicate to car owners the urgency of recalls involving life-threatening defects. Rating the seriousness of the defect involved in each recall on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most serious, would be one way to help consumers filter recalls and respond appropriately.
2. Manufacturers need to produce a sufficient number of parts for repairing the recalled vehicles and deliver them in a timely manner to dealerships nationwide.
3. The federal government needs to close the legal loopholes that leave used car owners uninformed and unprotected.
4. Consumers need to make time to become informed about their own vehicles. Owners of new and used cars can sign up for recall notifications by email at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) website: http://www.nhtsa.gov. Consumers can also search there for recalls using their vehicle identification numbers (VINs).It’s important to check periodically because it’s possible a given VIN might not be listed for several weeks after a recall is first announced. Finally, there is a new website, www.SaferCar.gov/RecallsSpotlight, to provide regular updates on the status of recalls and of NHTSA’s investigations.
5. Automotive dealerships could provide a real service to their customers and the community by taking proactive steps to notify consumers in their market area about recalls involving both new and used VINs. And remember that it is a multi-pronged marketing approach that works — mail and phone calls, email, etc. – in order to cut through the clutter and get their attention.