Earlier this week, Ford announced that it's recalling 92,000 cars because of a driveshaft problem that occasionally leads drivers to, in the company’s delicate parlance, “experience the loss of drive function.” This comes, of course, on the heels of GM’s seemingly endless chain of recall announcements, which at last count included nearly 26 million cars in the U.S.
But what has gotten lost amid the cacophony of legal teams and testimonies and decades-spanning investigations is the fact that millions of people affected by recalls don't act on them: roughly one out of every seven cars on U.S. roads, according to Carfax, are recalled but not repaired.*
Why aren’t people taking in their unsafe cars? George Hoffer, an automotive economist at the University of Richmond, has been studying recalls for decades, and addressed this question in a 1994 study. The likelihood of a return comes down to three things, Hoffer told me: “First is, the newer the vehicle, the more likely it is to be returned…The second is the more severe the perceived problem, the more likely it is to be returned. And the third one is the ringer: American vehicles are much more likely to be returned successfully than import brands.”
Reason three, Hoffer says, is the one that American car companies aren't as keen on. Any time you take your car into a dealer, they’ll check and see if there’s a recall open on your car. If there is, they’ll fix it for you. “Since American cars had much worse repair records than foreign-brand cars, the American car would be more likely in the shop. Therefore, if it was in the shop, unwittingly, it was repaired,” Hoffer says. Also, according to Hoffer, older cars are less likely to be taken in because they’re often on their second or third owner, and dealers don’t have their contact information.
We may understand why return rates are so low, but we haven't increased them. A couple weeks ago, the Times reported that dealers haven’t been able to handle the onslaught of requests for service appointments, and that by mid-June, only seven percent of cars with defective ignition switches had actually been taken in for repairs. (GM, for its part, pledges that its repairs will be mostly taken care of by October.) It’s theoretically in manufacturers’ interest to get people to bring their cars in—after all, they’re typically the ones liable for accidents caused by faulty parts, even after notifications have been mailed—and yet they seem to be doing very little to increase return rates.
The federal government has had the power to require manufacturers to recall defective vehicles since 1966, and since then, 390 million vehicles have been recalled (though they haven’t publicized how many of those have actually been fixed). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is at least aware that it needs to convert more recalls into repairs: In February, it issued a new, unmissable label that must be affixed to all recall letters mailed to owners.