Whenever there's some article about a car company recalling thousands of its vehicles to correct a fault, this is good news. It means the whole recall system is working, and that drivers, passengers and the road network in general are all a little safer because of it.

The system itself is part of a federal office, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "As a safety and public health agency, the primary focus of the administration is ensuring the highest standards of safety on the nation's roadways," said David Strickland, head of NHTSA.

Each car among the millions made every year has roughly 30,000 separate components. Considering the numbers, it's no surprise that things can sometimes go wrong. "Over just the last three years, NHTSA's defect and compliance investigations have resulted in 450 recalls involving 20 million vehicles," said Strickland.

Usually it's a faulty batch of parts from a supplier, but sometimes the inherent design of a part may be flawed. Once the administration has been made aware of some defect, it will instruct the relevant automaker to issue a recall and fix the problem. "Our expectation is that all manufacturers need to address automotive safety issues quickly and in a forthright manner. Through our enforcement efforts and ongoing dialogue with automakers, we make sure that's exactly what happens," said Strickland.

First, though, such an issue has to come to the administration's notice. This happens through consumer complaints. If there are sufficient reports about the same fault, then the NHTSA will start investigating. By this time, though, the companies themselves will already have compiled a file of reports from their customers.

If the problem has the potential to be serious, many companies will now instigate a voluntary recall, where customers, dealers and the administration are notified. "More and more recalls are being initiated by automakers," said Strickland. "This shows that manufacturers are taking their responsibility for safety seriously." The subsequent repair is carried out at no charge to the customer, even if the warranty has expired or if the current owner is not the original owner. There's an eight-year statute of limitations on such work performed for free.

The next crucial step is that owners of recalled cars have to come into the dealers and get the work done. NHTSA states that it is "focused on ensuring high response rates for all safety related recalls. The agency carefully monitors completion rates and whenever appropriate, asks manufacturers to take additional measures to reach out to owners who may not have received the first recall notification or perhaps did not fully appreciate the importance of the first notification."

The agency encourages all consumers to sign up for recall information in relation to tires and child seats as well as their motor vehicles. By doing so, they will be aware of the situation sooner than waiting for a letter from the manufacturer and therefore able to act faster. The site is www.safercar.gov.

Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) are not the same as recalls. Although the federal administration is kept aware and publishes them on its website, these tend to focus on aspects of car construction and/or maintenance that are not related to safety. The bulletins go out to dealership service departments as a way of notifying technicians of an issue and also providing the solution.

For example, a car might start making a noise when going around corners. The company has determined that the cause is old power steering fluid. A TSB advises changing the fluid and it's problem solved.

A dealer is within its rights to charge for this kind of work, since it is not a mandated recall but many dealerships do not. Whether it does or not charge you for the TSB fix might have something to do with the kind of relationship you have with your dealer and if your car is brought in for regular servicing. At the very least, a TSB does away with the time spent trying to ascertain and then solve the problem, thereby saving the customer money in that way.

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Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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