Most cars and trucks get recalled at some point in their lives. So don't be surprised if a letter arrives telling you to bring in your vehicle for repairs. Recalls address safety problems, even if they are minor.
Last year, for example, automakers called back more than 20 million vehicles in the United States. That's the most since 2004. Just last week, a recall of the Ford F-150 pickup ballooned to 1.2 million vehicles.
Do not be alarmed if your car or truck is recalled, but do take action, including:
1. Do the repairs. In a recall, you'll get a letter telling you to bring your vehicle to a dealer for free repairs. Sounds simple, right? Yet 30 percent of owners never take the time to get the work done. Recalls don't mean every affected vehicle will have a problem, but why take a chance? Take the F-150 recall. The air bags could inflate unexpectedly even if there's no crash, mainly on 2004, 2005 and some 2006 models. It has happened only 269 times, but what if it goes off while you're driving?
"The bottom line is it's a free repair. Get it done. It may save your life," says Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
2. Be aggressive. Recalls are reported by the news media, but it takes a month or more after that for car companies to mail out letters to owners, and to send parts and instructions to dealers. If your car shows signs of the problem, don't wait for the recall letter. Call your dealer and have the problem checked. In the F-150 case, a warning light is supposed to come on before the air bag deploys.
3. Check for recalls. When automakers announce recalls, they search state databases to find owners. But if you've moved a lot or have a used car, they may not find you. It's a good idea to search the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database for recalls. Go to www.safercar.gov. Click on vehicle recalls and plug in the year and model of your car.
If you find one, call your dealer or the automaker's customer service line and ask whether it was fixed. They can tell from your vehicle identification number, which should be on your state registration documents and is on the top of a car's dashboard. You can also use the number to search for your car on many automaker websites.
4. Get e-mail alerts. The Traffic Safety Administration will alert you by e-mail when your car is recalled. You can sign up on the agency's website.
5. Other repairs. Things often go wrong with cars that aren't big enough to cause a recall. Automakers issue "technical service bulletins" to dealers telling them to fix cars when they come in for other repairs. It's difficult for a consumer to check for the bulletins, but some information is on websites set up by car enthusiasts, said Jeff Bartlett, deputy autos editor at Consumer Reports. Otherwise, a dealer or larger independent car repair shop can get the data.