An insurance industry study found that repairing recalled vehicles can reduce dangerous incidents for drivers.
The Highway Loss Data Institute – an arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – looked at claims for car fires that were not caused by a crash. These are fires that start with electrical issues and fuel system defects, problems that are a fairly common source of manufacturer recalls.
The insurance industry research organization compared the rate of non-crash fire claims for vehicles during the period from 2007 to 2012.
Prior to a recall, the frequency of insurance claims for vehicles with fire-related defects was 23% higher than for other vehicles. After the recall, claim frequency was only 12%. It would be lower if more consumers responded to recall notices.
"As one would hope, recalls mitigate the effect of fire-related defects," said Matt Moore vice president at the Highway Loss Data Institute. "However, even after recalls are issued, these vehicles continue to have higher claim rates. This may be a result of people not following up after receiving a recall notice."
The insurance industry study "underscores how important it is for consumers to act quickly when they receive recall notices mailed to their homes," said David Friedman, acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency is developing an online service that will allow owners or buyers of used cars to type in the vehicle's identification number and learn whether the car has been recalled. Some car companies already offer a similar research tool on their websites.
Overall, automakers recalled almost 22 million cars last year, according to NHTSA data. That was 34% higher than the previous year and the most since 30.8 million vehicles were recalled in 2004, according to the agency.
Automakers continue to issue big recalls. So far this year General Motors has recalled 1.6 million vehicles for an ignition switch issue linked to 12 deaths. Earlier this week Nissan recalled nearly 1 million vehicles to fix a software issue that could prevent a passenger airbag from deploying.
Car vehicle history report company Carfax estimates that 3.5 million vehicles with an unfixed recall were listed for sale last year.
"Open recalls are still a major public safety issue," said Larry Gamache, Carfax spokesman. "In fact, our research indicates that more than one in 10 used cars for sale online has an open recall."
It's not unusual for recall notices to be set aside and inadvertently ignored, said John O'Dell, senior editor for car shopping website Edmunds.com.
"Consumers should take a few minutes periodically to check if there are any outstanding recalls on the vehicles they own or are thinking about buying," O'Dell said. "And once a consumer has bought a used car, it's a good idea to register it with the manufacturer via its website. That will put the car back into the recall-communication loop."