Safety Recalls May Be ‘Voluntary,’ but Are Required by Law

Christopher Jensen

“A voluntary safety recall.”

I have been covering automotive safety for about 30 years, including now writing a weekly roundup of safety recalls for Wheels, and whenever a carmaker recalls a vehicle for a safety problem, it often describes it as voluntary.

But there is no such thing as a voluntary recall for a safety-related defect because the automaker has no choice, said Allan Kam, a safety consultant in Bethesda, Md., who once worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as the senior enforcement attorney.

“It is like saying I voluntarily paid my income tax,” Mr. Kam said. “I did it because the law requires me to.”

The pertinent law for automakers is the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. It says automakers are required to notify N.H.T.S.A. and consumers and conduct a recall when there is a safety defect.

An automaker has five business days to inform the safety agency of a problem after discovering a safety defect.

“They really have no choice,” said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. If an automaker refuses, the agency can begin legal proceedings.

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