Automobile Safety Recalls in Canada

When does Transport Canada decide to issue recalls?

Transport Canada almost never issues a safety recall. Vehicle recalls are issued by the manufacturer or importer, sometimes with the encouragement of Transport Canada when they become aware of a defect that is likely to affect the safety of the public. Transport Canada could ask a court to issue a recall or it could levy a fine against an automaker that was not in compliance, but that very rarely happens. Sometimes when an investigation stalls in Canada, the US recall regulator continues moving it forward. That is a large benefit of continent-wide safety standards for vehicles and harmonized legislation.

Very rarely, Transport Canada will issue a news release to warn vehicle owners of a safety defect when they disagree with an automaker. Former Transport Minister Marc Garneau did that when the Ford Motor Company refused to recall F150 pickups with defective braking systems. Ford complied shortly after. And Transport Canada may issue its own recall notice if the manufacturer has become insolvent or has left the country. This would be the case for small manufacturers of commercial equipment, like trailers for example.

What is the legal requirement for a safety recall?

Here is the relevant section of the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act:

  • 10 (1) A company that… sells any vehicle or equipment… or imports any vehicle or equipment… for which standards are prescribed shall give notice of any defect in the design, manufacture or functioning… that affects or is likely to affect the safety of any person to
    • (a) the Minister (of Transport), on becoming aware of the defect; and
    • (b) the current owner…

Power to order

  • (4) The Minister may, by order, require any company that sells any vehicle or equipment or imports any vehicle or equipment of a class for which standards are prescribed to give notice of a defect in the manner specified in the order, if the Minister considers that it is in the interest of safety.

Section 10 (1) is used by automakers almost every week of the year to announce safety recalls, in total over 500 vehicle recalls annually.
Section 10 (4) is a powerful tool that is almost never used. Its presence may act as a form of deterrence for automakers that are attempting to avoid liability.

How does Transport Canada determine if there is a safety defect?

There are two ways:

  1. Based on complaint intake, which is similar to the way the APA learns about defects. That’s why it’s important to report a defect you think relates to the design or manufacturing of a vehicle to Transport Canada, and not just to your dealership or insurance company. There is a big gap in reporting in Canada which sometimes delays safety investigations.
  2. Compliance testing, where the government buys an example of the vehicle and checks it for compliance with our safety standards. This can involve a crash test that destroys the vehicle.

Problems that are the result of a repair error or neglected vehicle maintenance are not considered safety defects that fall under the Act.

Does Canada’s recall system work?

Generally, yes. And at relatively little cost to the government and Canadian affiliates of the carmakers. In Canada primary responsibility for recalls is with the automakers. The Canadian subsidiaries of the automakers leave most of the work of identifying, investigating and engineering solutions to vehicle safety complaints to their head office engineering teams outside Canada. The extent of the underinvestment in this activity by the Canadian affiliate is sometimes surprising — presumably, this keeps their costs down in a medium-size market like Canada. The tie-in to the United States with its much larger market and more litigious legal system brings large benefits to Canadians.

Transport Canada’s motor vehicle defect investigation service works out of a small department with limited resources and superior subject-area expertise.

What weaknesses in the vehicle system should be addressed?

  • Recall completion rates on some older cars should be higher. Provincial vehicle registration systems are able to identify unpaid parking tickets when a vehicle registration comes up for renewal, but none will warn owners about an open safety recall.
  • Auto dealer associations vigorously object to mandatory recall checks before selling used vehicles because they have the potential to hinder their members’ retailing activities. Very few auto dealers correct open recalls, unless they are franchised dealers selling the same brand of used car. In that situation, completing a recall brings in additional revenue to their service departments. (With a few exceptions, the APA would be satisfied with a notice to the new owner mentioning outstanding recalls prior to completing the sales transaction, as opposed to an outright prohibition on the sale of vehicles with open recalls.)
  • Until recently, many daily rental companies did not take their fleets in for recalls, because that took money-making vehicles off the road (the practice may have changed in Canada at some of the companies).
  • Automakers are required by law to report correction rates for recalls, but the Canadian government keeps the information private as a courtesy to the industry. The equivalent information is public in the USA — because it concerns public safety. The information should be available here, at least for recalls with low completion rates.
  • Currently sanctions are not applied against automakers that implement their recall programs poorly. FCA (now Stellantis) is an automaker that is sometimes slow and sloppy about making parts available after announcing significant recalls, but there are no consequences. Other brands have some recalls of older vehicles with low completion rates. Those automakers could be more diligent, but they suffer no sanction for poor compliance.
  • Emissions recalls used to be listed on the Transport Canada database, which is the reference tool for lookups in Canada. The information has become hard to find — this appears to be the result of the environment ministry people working in their own private silo. Emissions recalls should be posted together with safety recalls, as both are important, and both usually require a visit to a franchised dealer for the correction.

What can I do as a vehicle owner or lessee?

Update your contact info with the vehicle manufacturer

All major brands now permit a real-time online lookup capability for open recalls (though not all the systems are transparent). Doublecheck by checking the Transport Canada website which lists all safety recalls for your vehicle, whether completed or not.

Related articles:

APA Update on Kia and Hyundai Engine Reliability Issues

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