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Don’t Expect Total Recall for Toyotas

Toyota recalled 7.4 million vehicles around the world Wednesday citing faulty power window switches that may catch fire. But history suggests many of the affected Toyota owners will ignore the warning and continue to drive around with the dangerous part.

On average, just 70% of drivers respond to a recall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – although automakers say the rate is often higher than that. Toyota and General Motors both say they have a 75% response rate within 18 months of recalls, though both companies say they’ve had 80% completion in some cases. Experts say it’s not easy to reach everyone: Toyota’s most recent recalls included the 7.1 million vehicles in January 2011 cited for gas pedals prone to being trapped by floor mats.

The rate varies depending on the severity of the recall. “If you tell someone that the car is apt to catch on fire they’re more likely to get the part replaced than if it’s something like a radio glitch,” says Larry Dominique, executive vice-president at TrueCar.com. Dominique, the former head of product planning for Nissan in North and South America, says auto manufacturers typically get around 50% of responses within the first 30 days and the rest trickle in the months – sometimes years – after that.

Wednesday’s move by Toyota was the largest single recall since Ford Motor Co. cited 7.9 million vehicles for defective ignition switches. Toyota’s recall follows three separate recalls by Honda Motor Co. in the last week of 1.7 million vehicles with potential problems with 600,000 more Honda cars under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Part of the trouble – even on recalls of this scale – is that many cars are re-sold to third parties. In 2011, over 2.7 million used cars were for sale online with safety recalls that were never fixed, according to a recent study by Carfax.com, a company that sells vehicle history reports. “But some original owners flat-out ignore recall notices and don’t mention them to buyers,” says senior editor John O’Dell at car-shopping website Edmunds.com. If the car is sold through a franchised car dealership, he says it’s more likely to be fixed before being re-sold.

And if the owner chooses to ignore a recall – or simply doesn’t get the letter – and then has a car accident linked to the recall issue? Once the manufacturer has made a “good-faith” effort to communicate the news, the legal onus would shift to the driver, says Warren Redlich, a lawyer in Albany, N.Y. While each court state and case would obviously stand on its unique set of rules and circumstances, he says the carmaker would have less protection against a third party injured in such an accident.

 

 

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