Motor vehicles are complex machines with tens of thousands of interconnected parts. In addition to mechanical pumps, shafts, and valves, automobiles now have onboard computers connected to sensors and actuators running hundreds of thousands of lines of software code.
Some of these parts can malfunction without interfering with the vehicle’s safe operation. When your vehicle has or develops a defect in a critical system, you could lose control of your vehicle and crash.
Alternatively, the defect can occur in a safety system, leading to much worse injuries than you otherwise should have experienced. If you are curious about your rights after an accident related to a defective car part, learn more here.
How Big Is The Problem?
In 2022, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued 932 vehicle recalls. This number might appear low, but recalls during this one year covered 30 million — or about 10% — of the 300 million vehicles on America’s roads.
That said, the NHTSA estimates that vehicle malfunctions only cause about 2% of all auto accidents. Both environmental conditions, like rain or glare, and driving behaviors, like speeding, cause crashes to increase.
Common Defective Parts
The NHTSA only handles safety recalls. Warranty repairs to any non-essential systems are the manufacturer’s responsibility.
In other words, the NHTSA recalled 30 million vehicles in 2022 because they posed a risk to the driver or other road users. Some of the most common safety issues identified by the NHTSA include the following:
1. Tires And Wheels
Mathematically speaking, you are most likely to experience a defect in your tires or wheels because you have four of each. Some defects happen due to wear and careless maintenance. When drivers fail to check their tires, they risk experiencing worn treads and low tire pressure.
Other defects might result from the design or manufacturing process. One of the most notable product recalls happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled over 14 million SUV tires. The adhesive holding the tread layer to the tire was too thin and allowed the tread to separate.
Your braking system uses a combination of mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical systems to convert pressure on the brake pedal into braking power on your wheels. Brakes require maintenance.
For instance, disc brake systems need periodic pad replacement, and drum brakes need new shoes. When vehicle owners fail to maintain these systems, they can lose their brakes.
Defects can also happen when manufacturers or repair shops install defective parts. In 2023, several manufacturers, including Ford, Hyundai, and Volvo, recalled vehicles for brake-related problems ranging from unintended activation of the parking brake to loss of braking.
3. Steering System
The steering system maneuvers your vehicle. Cars without power steering use a mechanical linkage and gears called a rack and pinion to pivot your wheels. Power steering uses hydraulic pressure to amplify the power you apply to the steering wheel.
A steering defect can cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle. General Motors recalled 1.3 million vehicles in 2014 because the power steering could fail, causing the vehicle to revert to manual steering. As a result, the company feared that drivers might lose control of their vehicles, particularly at low speeds.
You might not think of seats as a critical safety system. But the seats support you while driving and keep you in place during a collision. Defective seats could move unexpectedly or even break free during a car accident.
Defects in the seats can also affect the latches used to anchor child car seats. In 2023, General Motors recalled over 600,000 vehicles for latches that had too much powder coating on their child car seat anchors.
As a result, the seat fasteners would often not fit properly over the anchors. In a collision, this defect would cause the car seat to come loose, endangering the child.
5. Accelerator And Fuel System
The fuel system holds and carries flammable fuel to the engine for combustion. The accelerator works with the fuel pump, fuel injectors, air sensors, and valves to deliver the right mixture of fuel and air to the engine’s cylinders.
Many of the most famous vehicle defects affected the accelerator and fuel system. The Ford Pinto was allegedly unsafe at any speed due to a lack of reinforcement surrounding the fuel tanks. In a collision, the tanks would leak gas and either catch on fire or explode.
Similarly, the Chevrolet Silverado had “saddle” fuel tanks along its sides outside the frame. In a side-impact crash, these tanks could rupture and start a fire. Toyota/Lexus had one of its largest recalls in 2011 when regulators found that the gas pedal would get stuck, resulting in an unintended acceleration.
The transmission takes power from the engine and “transmits” it to the wheels. Manual transmissions use sets of gears and a clutch to help drivers engage and disengage them. Automatic transmissions shift the gears for the driver.
A transmission issue that went unresolved in the 1980s was Ford’s park-to-reverse defect. The gear shift included a physical stop that prevented it from moving after being shifted into park.
But over time, the stop would wear down. As a result, the car would seem to shift itself from park to reverse. The company was allowed to avoid a recall by mailing warning stickers to owners.
7. Airbags And Seat Belts
The biggest recall in American history involved defective airbags. Takata built inflators that used different chemicals than other manufacturers. These chemicals degraded as they aged, particularly in hot and humid climates. They deployed explosively as a result, showering the vehicle occupants with shrapnel.
Staying On Top Of Your Car
The NHTSA recommends checking for vehicle recalls twice a year. The organization has developed an app to help users stay on top of any defective parts in their cars.
This app automatically checks the NHTSA database and notifies you of any recalls for your vehicle. When combined with vigilance while driving, this app can help reduce your exposure to the dangers of defective car parts.