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Toyota service technician Tungyio Saelee performs a recall repair on an accelerator pedal from a brand new Toyota Corolla at City Toyota February 5, 2010 in Daly City, California.

If history is any guide, a significant number of the cars GM has recalled this year may never get repaired, because the owners won’t end up bringing them to the shop. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that only about 75 percent of recalled cars and trucks get fixed.

The used-car company Carfax keeps a database with the VIN number of every car or truck that’s under recall.  “Our data suggests that right now there are at least 36 million cars across the U.S. that have a recall that has not been fixed,” says *Chris Basso from Carfax.  

Older cars are less likely to get brought in, according to research from economist George Hoffer, who has studied the auto industry for decades. He says that’s partly because many are on a second or third owner— who may not be in touch with a dealer. “And, the older the car, probably you’re more fiscally challenged,” he says, “and the last thing you want is for the dealer to start mining for other things and to say, ‘You know, while you’re here, we found this.’”

Also, a lot of recall notices may have gotten tossed out as junk mail. Bill Powers, a roofing contractor from the Chicago suburbs, owns three cars. Asked if any of them had ever been recalled, he paused. “Ooh. I don’t know,” he said, and laughed, shaking his head. “I guess I should probably know if they’ve had recalls, right?”

Does he ever get mail from his car dealer he doesn’t open?  “Yeah, quite a bit.”  More rueful laughter.

In February, hoping to improve on that 75 percent rate for repairs, NHTSA required carmakers to add a big label to recall notices. It looks like this:

But that rate doesn’t sound so bad compared to recalled child car seats. According to NHTSA, just 30 percent of those get repaired.


*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the company that provides repair histories on used cars. The company is Carfax. The article has been corrected.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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