Recall limbo: how to handle an automotive recall if parts aren't available

Markets Associated Press

In July, two scary notices arrived in Amaris McGee's mailbox.

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They came from General Motors, and each told her the gray 2005 Chevy Malibu she drives to work every day is being recalled for safety problems. But neither problem can be fixed yet because the parts aren't ready.

Like millions of others caught in GM's massive recall crisis, the 25-year-old corporate chef in Dallas can't afford to rent or buy another car. So she drives the Malibu even though the brake lights sometimes don't work, increasing the risk of getting rear-ended. And it's possible that the transmission shift cable can break without warning, leaving the car stuck in gear when the shifter shows it's in park.

She avoids the freeways, nervously driving 2 miles to work every day on side streets while she waits for another notice telling her the parts have arrived.

"It's my only car, so I have to drive it," she said. "I don't want anyone to get hurt because of something with my car, even though it's beyond my control."

Almost always, automakers or U.S. safety regulators send out recall notices before parts are ready. Sometimes the companies or dealers offer free loaner cars, but most of the time they don't. That presents car owners with a difficult question: should they keep driving and hope the problem doesn't affect them, or rent a car until the dealer gets parts, which can take months or even a year?

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Adding to driver anxiety is the fact that news coverage of a recall often comes before the notices, because most automakers follow federal law and report problems to the government to avoid fines and embarrassing publicity.

There are steps you can take to give yourself peace of mind or even get your car fixed before the parts are officially available, said Carroll Lachnit, consumer advice editor at the Edmunds.com automotive website.

First, anyone can check to see if their car is under recall on a new site offered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/. Type in your vehicle identification number (VIN), which can be found on the driver's side of the dashboard near the windshield. It's also often on state registration or insurance paperwork.

With a VIN, the site will tell you if there are unfixed recalls on your car, even if they are old. It also will tell you if the car company is waiting for parts.

If parts aren't available, Lachnit suggests clicking on links that take you to the NHTSA recall database, and looking at the documents for symptoms of the problem, and to see if it has caused any crashes or injuries. If your car has the symptoms, it's time to contact the dealer.

"You have to kind of assess how serious the problem is to make some noise and get some resolution," Lachnit says. "They may have parts."

Most of the time, GM starts recalls with about 30 percent of the parts it needs, spokesman Alan Adler said, so parts are available to those who are having problems. He suggests working with a dealer to get the repairs done even before notices are mailed by the company telling you to come in for repairs.

But even if your car hasn't shown symptoms, it's still unnerving to drive it knowing that something could cause you to crash at any moment. Automakers have recalled more than 40 million vehicles in the U.S. so far this year, a record. Many are for serious safety issues such as loss of steering or engine power, air bag failures or vehicle fires.

GM alone has recalled 29 million cars in North America. In most cases, automakers must line up companies to build replacement parts. They also must test the parts and ship them to thousands of dealers, and they have to tell mechanics how to fix things. Experts say no company, no matter how large, could quickly handle millions of parts.

"We've got this huge backlog," conceded GM's Adler. "We're working through these issues as soon as we can."

The same thing happens to other manufacturers. For example, Toyota in April recalled about 1.3 million older vehicles, including the popular RAV4 crossover, for air bag problems. At first there were no parts available. But the company is now telling owners with air bag warning lights illuminated on their dash to take cars to dealers.

For Malibus and 2.4 million other recalled midsize cars like McGee's, Adler says 900,000 parts have been shipped to fix the brake light problem. Letters telling U.S. customers to get the cars fixed are going out now at the rate of 60,000 per day. But parts still aren't available for the transmission cable problem in McGee's car.

McGee says she'll contact her dealer about getting the car fixed before she gets a letter telling her to do so. And she's unhappy with GM because of how long it's taken to find and fix the problem. "I'd like this rectified as soon as possible," she said.