Something wrong with your car? Here’s how Canada’s vehicle recall system works


From broken seatbelts to faulty airbags and dysfunctional pedals, it sometimes seems like there’s a story about a major vehicle recall every other day. 

On Wednesday, Nissan sent out a “do not drive” warning to owners of its 2002-2006 Nissan Sentra, its 2002-2004 Nissan Pathfinder and its 2002-2003 Infiniti QX4 models, a recall that a spokesperson said applies to 48,000 vehicles in Canada.

The spokesperson said the recall was part of an extensive campaign that began in 2017 to communicate the risk of driving vehicles with defective Takata-brand airbag inflators, and to “urge drivers to complete the free recall repair.”

A “do not drive” warning means that the car shouldn’t be driven until the recall is completed and the defective parts have been replaced.

A Transport Canada recall database shows that there have been over 680 vehicle recalls since the start of 2024, which can include all types of vehicles, from private passenger cars to school buses to heavy duty semi-trailer trucks.

The agency released a report last summer, which found that there were 6.6 million “unsafe” cars travelling on Canadian roads because they had an unresolved safety recall, with older vehicles more likely to fall under that category.

As car technology evolves, the question is whether a recall requires you to take your car in — or, if your model allows, whether you can sit back and let the company update the car remotely.

Here’s what you need to know to know about Canada’s recall system — and how to ensure that your car isn’t overdue for a safety recall.

WATCH | Why this ‘urgent’ recall took almost 2 years to be fixed:

‘Urgent’ vehicle recall took almost 2 years to resolve | Go Public

A Montreal couple turned to CBC’s Go Public after waiting almost two years for their automaker to fix a vehicle defect that prompted an ‘urgent’ recall.

What is the manufacturer’s responsibility?

Under Canadian federal law, manufacturers have to inform car owners of a recall in writing within 60 days after they’ve identified a defect that could impact a person’s safety.

The safety recall notice has to inform the owner of the defect and its possible safety risks, describe how to fix the issue and list any precautions the owner can take to minimize the risk until the fix is complete.

“There are no timeline requirements in the [Motor Vehicle Safety Act] or the regulations for a company to have a solution available when a notice of defect is given,” Transport Canada told CBC News in an email.

“Transport Canada also publishes information about each notice in the Motor Vehicle Safety Recalls Database. These recalls are also published through the Government of Canada’s Recalls and Safety Alerts system.”

How do you find out if your car has been recalled?

While it’s up to the manufacturer to contact drivers whose vehicles have been recalled, they often don’t have up-to-date information, according to Kristine D’Arbelles, the senior director of public affairs at the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).

“If you look at the Canadian system and how people purchase cars, manufacturers very rarely actually have a customer list because their vehicles are sold through a dealership network, and those dealerships are separate owned companies,” said D’Arbelles.

A bird's eye view of dozens of cars lined up beside each other on a dusty gravel lot. Most have white roofs.
Kia cars are parked on a compound in Wolverton, Ont., about 30 kilometres south of Kitchener. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

The other challenge is that Canada has a significant second-hand vehicle market, where people buy from used-car dealerships, or through Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace. That means the name and contact information tied to a vehicle might not be up to date, making it difficult for a manufacturer to reach the car’s current owner.

That’s part of the reason why CAA has asked Transport Canada to launch a database that would allow drivers to plug in their vehicle identification number (VIN) to search for recalls. 

Websites like Carfax Canada offer VIN look-up tools, as do many major auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, Ford and General Motors. Nissan also has a VIN look-up, and it’s encouraging the owners of impacted vehicles to use it.

But if you’re waiting for a call, it might be a while before you get one. D’Arbelles suggests that drivers regularly check to see if their car has been recalled.

Companies that don’t have that specific tool might let you search for your vehicle’s make, model and year. But you might get a result that tells you to drive to the nearest dealership to see if your car is impacted.

“That’s something that I would not say that someone has to do on a weekly basis or even a monthly basis. Maybe it’s every single time you go in for a checkup with your vehicle [or] you get an oil change,” D’Arbelles said.

Are recalls becoming more common?

A team that included a University of Waterloo engineering expert compared recall systems in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., studying whether the increasing dominance of electricity-driven vehicles led to any significant safety recall patterns.

“We saw a clear trend away from recalls due to mechanical failures, to recalls due to software and software defects, and this is absolutely understandable,” said Sebastian Fischmeister, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo. 

“A motor vehicle has around 100 computers in there to control the different vehicle functions. And as we move to more and more automation and autonomy in vehicles, the number of computers or computer functions will drastically increase further. 

“The consequence of that is naturally [that] fewer defects are due to mechanical, and more defects are due to software.”

Have vehicle recalls changed as car tech evolves?

“While there are different ways to solve recalls or to fix recalls, the system of a recall is still the same,” said D’Arbelles. “[It] doesn’t matter what type of vehicle — old, new, electric vehicle, hybrid, ICE vehicle — a recall is a recall.”

A charger is plugged into the side of a white electric vehicle.
All-electric 2018 Bolt EV cars at electric vehicle charging stations in the GM lot. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Some safety recalls might be as simple as the company releasing an over-the-air software update, which is when a manufacturer can update your car’s software remotely without any action on the driver’s end. 

These have become increasingly common since U.S. electric automaker Tesla pioneered them more than a decade ago. The updates typically happen overnight.

However, the average age of the fleet of cars on Canadian roads is 10 years old, according to Statistic Canada’s Canadian Vehicle Survey.

“So if you think about that, there are still people driving around with 2014 vehicles,” D’Arbelles said. Not all of those cars can perform remote updates.

Other recalls might require a parts replacement, but an ongoing supply shortage is proving a challenge.

“The aftermarket right now on vehicle repairs is still reeling after the pandemic and still having troubles with getting parts on time and still has [a] backlog,” said D’Arbelles.

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