What is a Recall?

Most folks I have talked to over the past 40 or more years about powersports seem to not understand what the word "recall" means. It's not what they think. Of course the OEMs have not exactly gone out of their way to make this clear. Even some dealer staff are confused about it. Here's the deal. Manufacturers do a lot in the way of after-the-fact vehicle modifications, much like mobile phone manufacturers frequently issue new firmware. But, not every technical action announced by a manufacturer is a "recall." I read and hear this all the time. "This is a recall, that is a recall." Whatever. But it's not so. Among all publicized manufacturer actions, recalls occupy only the highest level of factory instituted service campaigns, a level reserved for only safety-related actions. There is no such thing as a recall on the bike's paint, or regarding its chrome. Or even the accuracy of its instrumentation. By definition a recall is about an issue that can get you killed. It's that simple. Frames, tires, hose clamps, brakes, suspensions, engines, fuel injection systems, controls. But not paint. Note that I used the term "service campaign.". This is the umbrella term for all factory announced service actions, of which most OEMs have several levels, separated by importance. The recall is always the one at the very top. It is the most serious. And it is taken very very seriously by manufacturers.

Not only are all OEM service bulletins not recalls, not all an OEM's bulletins are service bulletins either. There are many kinds of bulletins issued by a manufacturer. These take the form of bulletins describing the availability of accessories, new sales promotions, etc. Note also that all manufacturers' bulletins are published to a closed community, i.e. the OEM's dealers, and not to the public. The exception to this is recalls, about which more will be said later. If you work for a corporation, you likely have memos and other internal memos that are not published outside the company. It's the same with powersports manufacturers. But, except for recalls, the OEMs are not required to inform customers, and they avoid doing so mostly because to them there is no point. They feel the subjects of most bulletins are out of the scope of the general public, and they are mostly right. When Joe Public does read a factory service bulletin, he often misunderstands its point and its scope. I'm not being rude. I have had a lot of experience here, on both sides, the dealership and the manufacturer. Most bulletins are very technical and much more narrowly focused than the person on the street wants to believe. For example, a motorcycle owner might spot a bulletin about a model the manufacturer says could benefit from a certain procedure, but that the procedure's applicability is limited to a small number of unts. The individual on the other hand is likely to believe that his or her bike is automatically eligible, simply because it is the same model, when it may not in reality be affected. It's a problem manufacturers have to deal with constantly. Manufacturers also no longer list VINs in their bulletins because their dealers are expected to be plugged into the manufacturers' online databanks. So the bulletins do not contain much information helpful to vehicle owners, not even vehicle ranges. For that matter, most OEMs don't even publish service bulletins on paper any more, except recalls (which they are still required to do). Incidentally, none of the powersports OEMs call ther service bulletins "TSBs", unlike in the car business.

Many manufacturers issue four kinds of service bulletins. At the bottom, the lowest bulletin level, is the Information bulletin. This is mechanics' tips newsletters (Honda calls them "The Wrench" newsetter, Kawasaki calls theirs "K-Tech News"). In many ways extensions of the factory manuals and heads up on new techniques, these are invaluable. Also published are race bulletins, accessories bulletins, training news, parts bulletins, bulletins about media events, marketing, sales -- these are all at the lowest, Information level, a level that demands no action. It is information only. Next up the scale is what Kawasaki calls the Factory Authorized Repair (FAR). The FAR asks for a response on the part of the dealer, but the response, while encouraged, is actually optional, not mandatory. And while there is sometimes warranty consideration, that is, the modification might in some cases be done free to the customer, the eliigibility guidelines are pretty tight and the timeline very limited. Next in importance is Kawasaki's Factory Directed Modification, or FDM. The FDM is a little stronger, in that it is always something done free to the customer, the dealer is required to do it, but there is still a limited window of opportunity, time-wise. It's not open-ended. Then, last, and highest up the service campaign heirarchy, is the Recall. Recalls are really very unique. They should never be confused with the other three bulletins, and the word "Recall" should never be used except when the bulletin actually is labeled "Recall.". A recall is by definition always safety-related. Always. And it is virtually always announced in collaboration with a government oversight agency such as the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), U.S. Coast Guard, or Special Specialty Vehicle Institute (SVIA), who help the OEM set timelines for completion and other important parameters.

Again, this point cannot be overstressed -- recalls are exceptional. They are unique in many ways. For example, they are always safety-related. Honda once recalled a scooter that because one 6mm screw tended to loosen up, the rear fender could come loose and pivot until it slid under the wheel, turning the scooter into an asphalt sled! Recalls are always free to the customer. Recalls are always accompanied by separate letters to the customer -- attempts are even made to find those customers who have relocated or sold their vehicle. Recalls are also the only service campaigns manufacturers still publish on paper. And, most significantly, unlike all other service campaigns, recalls never end. That's right, they never, ever, end. Info bulletins, FARs, and FDMs all have specifically described timelines. Recalls do not. Legally and morally, for a bike that is 50 years old that appears in his dealership, a dealer is obligated to conduct the repair, unless specialized parts are simply no longer available. Honda's 1970s fuel tank cap latches come to mind. These were still being done in Honda dealerships 25 years later. Much more common are 3-5 year old machines that have somehow escaped their recalls. These machines have to be serviced per the recall. The dealer is also legally and morally obligated to perform recall repairs to eligible vehicles he hasn't yet sold that are in his inventory, and can face serious consequences for failing to do so. He is also strongly encouraged to contact those customers to whom he has sold such vehicles and compel them to return for the recall service.

So the next time you hear the word "recall," know what it means. It is synonymous with personal safety. It is in fact the reason behind the NHTSA-originated Vehicle Identification (VIN) Number system. It is deadly serious, and not every adjustment or modification program a manufactuer embarks on is a "recall."

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