(U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office)

Vehicle recalls are at their highest in almost a decade, with nearly 22 million vehicles flagged for safety issues last year alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. GM’s massive recall and Toyota’s recent recall investigation settlement are raising a lot of questions about how and when automakers should inform consumers about safety issues. While these investigations are important, you may have more pressing questions on your mind, like what to you do if your car is recalled. It’s important to know your rights and what you can expect from the automaker, the dealer and the government. We’ll walk you through the steps you should take to figure out if a recall applies to you and how to get the necessary repairs so you can feel safe.

1. Don't panic. A recall is typically a precautionary measure that indicates an automaker is dedicated to public safety, says Kelley Blue Book. "In most cases a recall of your car does not mean that it is destined to breakdown, but rather that a problem in the manufacturing process has been identified in a number of similar models and therefore has the potential to surface in yours." Recalls occur when a vehicle (or the vehicle's equipment, such as tires) doesn't meet federal safety standards or is found to have a defect that affects safety. Many automakers voluntarily announce recalls, though some are mandated by the federal government’s NHTSA.

2. Confirm. Manufacturers are required to notify you by mail in the event of a recall. If you have not been contacted by the manufacturer in writing, confirm that your car is affected by contacting the manufacturer or visiting NHTSA’s site, Be sure to have your vehicle identification number (VIN) handy. Typically, you can find the VIN on the driver's side of the dashboard in front of the steering wheel or on the driver's side doorjamb when the door is open.

3. Am I eligible? Once you know a recall applies to your car, determine if you're eligible for free repairs. If the car is less than 10 years old from the date of the first purchase, the automaker must correct the problem by repairing the car, replacing the car or providing a refund for the purchase price of the car minus depreciation, according to NHTSA. If your car is more than 10 years old, you will have to pay for repairs out of pocket. If you have already paid for repairs to correct a defect that's since been recalled, you may be eligible for reimbursement. However, you have to act quickly: Eligibility for reimbursement is determined within 10 days of the manufacturer mailing out the last recall notice.

4. Be patient. Once a recall has been issued, the law gives an automaker a grace period to implement a plan of action. In this case, there is nothing to do but wait for further instructions. Typically, your local dealership will make the necessary repairs at no charge, regardless of where you originally bought the car. However, dealers aren't required to make any repairs before the official date is issued by the manufacturer.

5. Seek help. If you are having difficulty getting your car repaired or repaired without charge, you should first contact the dealer service manager and provide a copy of your recall notification letter. If that doesn't work, try contacting the manufacturer. If all else fails, file a complaint with NHTSA by phone, mail or online.

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