If you own a car, you've probably received a safety recall notice in the mail at some point. Manufacturers are required to attempt to notify owners of recalled products and to provide a free remedy. You may be inclined to ignore a recall notification letter - especially if it contains confusing jargon or seems like it concerns something minor.

But here's a newsflash: In the realm of safety recalls, nothing is minor. According to Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency that issues automotive recalls, every recall has a serious safety implication. "A defect exists that is a safety issue and it needs to be corrected," Tyson says. "There are some worse than others, yes, but in some way they all have potential to lead to injury or death."

A Cautionary Tale

In 1996, Ford issued a recall on the cruise control switch in models throughout its line-up The recall affected about 16 million vehicles and became one of the largest vehicle safety recalls on record. Though Ford sent out notification letters, relatively few people actually took their cars in to be fixed right away. NHTSA's Tyson speculates that owners probably read that the recall affected the cruise control and assumed it wasn't a big deal because their cruise control was working just fine.

But a little more attention to detail would reveal that the recall was quite serious. "The problem was manifesting itself after the vehicle was shut off and parked," Tyson explains. "The defect caused the vehicle to catch fire." As a result, some owners' cars caught fire in their garages in the middle of the night and subsequently led to their houses catching fire.

Today, attorneys are still advertising for potential clients who where injured or lost personal property due to the fires. According to the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, "NHTSA has reported receiving 1,472 complaints connected to the defect, including 65 fires."

The moral of the story is clear: There are no small or insignificant safety recalls. "What seems to be really innocent and innocuous can turn out to be a real tragedy," Tyson says. "And that's why people need to respond to a recall notice and take their car in to get fixed right away."

Recall Apathy

In fact, according to Tyson, recall completion rates show car owners are quite apathetic when it comes to responding to recalls. In some cases, the rates of completing the recall repairs are only 20 to 40 percent.

The only outstanding success (completion-wise) was the Firestone tire recall of 2001, which became one of the most tragic recall-related events. In that case, a design flaw causing tread separations in specific Firestone tires led to more than 174 deaths and 700 injuries. The tragedy of the situation led to so much publicity that drivers couldn't ignore the recall and most of them took their tires in to be replaced.

Recall Trends

So, how can you avoid a safety recall? The answer is simple: You can't. There's really no rhyme or reason to vehicle recalls. Since millions of cars are built each year, something, no matter how minor or major, will probably go wrong at some point.

In 2008, NHTSA logged 684 vehicle recalls affecting more than 10 million vehicles. That number is the highest on record, although the number has hovered around that point for several years. In 2007, 587 recalls were filed (by contrast, only 58 vehicle recalls were filed when record-keeping began in 1966). The number of vehicles affected for each recall also varies. Some recalls only involve a few hundred cars, while others, like the Ford cruise control switch, may involve millions.

There's no trend regarding manufacturers or models, either. Naturally, the larger manufacturers report the most recalls, since they make more vehicles than smaller manufacturers. In 2008, Ford Motor Company reported 11 recalls affecting 1,604,819 vehicles. By contrast, Hyundai Motor Company, a much smaller automaker, reported three recalls affecting 293,910 vehicles.

Note that recalls have nothing to do with quality. Manufacturers with good quality ratings are affected by recalls just as often as those with poor quality ratings. Even expensive exotics have safety recalls. Bentley Motors LTD reported three recalls affecting more than 13,000 vehicles in 2008, while Ferrari North America Inc. reported one recall affecting 366 vehicles.

If A Recall Happens to You

You've received a recall notification in the mail. Now what? First, make sure to read the letter carefully. According to NHTSA, each letter must contain the following: A description of the defect; a note about the risk or hazard posed, including warning signs; a description of the free repair, including when it's available and how long it will take; and a description of what you can do if you're unable to have the problem corrected within a reasonable time and without charge.

Your next step is to take the car in to be repaired, following the instructions in the letter, as soon as possible. If you're confused or need more information, you can always call NHTSA toll-free at (888)DASH-2-DOT (1-888-327-4236).

Better yet, don't even wait until you get a letter in the mail -- where it could get lost or mistaken for junk mail. You can routinely check to see if there are recalls on your car using NHTSA's online Recall Search, which allows you to search by year, make and model.