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What are car safety recalls all about?

If you get a recall notice in the mail, don't ignore it.

"Oh no, I've bought a dud." This is the not unnatural reaction you may have if you receive a letter in the mail telling you your car has been recalled because there's an alarming possibility that it might catch fire, or worse.

When you've saved hard, researched endlessly and finally experienced the joy of buying a new car, it can come as a painful blow to hear that your cherished vehicle is flawed.

But is it really that bad? With so many cars being recalled - for faults ranging from faulty airbags that could spray shrapnel to wriggling seats - should you even be surprised if it happens to you?

Essentially there are two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, you could applaud the company who made your car for being extremely honest and exceedingly careful because in most cases, while the manufacturer may have to go through the embarrassment and huge expense of recalling every single one of a particular model, the fault in question might only affect a tiny number of vehicles.

Sorry, I just remembered the meat in there is off - and one of my kitchen hands spat in it

But on the other hand, if the brand you've bought from seems to be endlessly recalling its cars, far more than other makers, then you have to wonder if they know what the words "quality control" mean.

Spotting a flaw in the design of your vehicle after you've already put it on sale is, after all, a bit like being at a restaurant and having the chef run out of the kitchen and swipe your meal off the table saying "sorry, I just remembered the meat in there is off - and one of my kitchen hands spat in it".

Holden recently recalled some 26,000 of its Colorado utes - meaning it put out a notice ordering dealers to stop selling them and then wrote to all of the owners asking them to bring their cars in to be fixed, at no expense to them - because five people experienced what it euphemistically called "thermal incidents".

The way the alternator cable had been designed meant that it could make contact with a steel bracket, which could cause the cable to rub through its insulation, melt and possibly catch fire.

The safety bulletin made Holden, once again, the most recalled brand so far this year. In 2014, Holden issued a record 14 recall notices, a number equalled only by Jeep.

Some recalls can be for something as minor as a dodgy windscreen wiper

The Colorado recall was Holden's fifth so far this year, while Jeep and Nissan have four each and Suzuki, Mazda, Hyundai and Honda three each, and Toyota two.

So, while recalls aren't exactly uncommon, you might want to consider just how many some brands have as a marker of whether they're cooking up the right designs.

It's not just you

Last year, Australia posted a truly mind-boggling number of recalls, with more than 800,000 cars being returned to dealers for some kind of factory-funded repair - at an incalculably large overall cost - so you really shouldn't feel put upon if it happens to you.

With the number of recalls hitting such highs, is this a sign that car makers are becoming more careless or cutting corners? Not entirely. Partly, they are being more careful than ever, and more honest, because they fear legal recriminations. Thus some recalls can be for something as minor as a dodgy windscreen wiper.

The other issue is that as motoring brands have become larger and more global - witness the vast size of the Volkswagen Group for example - they have sought to lower costs by outsourcing more parts and cashing in on economies of scale.

So when one company is the single source for a part found in millions of cars - like the Japanese company that makes airbags for most leading brands, Takata - then a single mistake can have huge effects.

A global recall effecting Takata airbags, which could potentially explode and spray shrapnel at occupants, affected more than 50 million cars from nine different brands worldwide.

Tragically, the fault was linked to at least five deaths in America, which is an example of why all recalls should be taken seriously.

What should you do?

Don't ignore it, or put it off, basically. Most recalls relate to safety and, because it's not going to cost you anything, except time and inconvenience, they are not something you should wait to get fixed. So when you get the letter, follow the instructions and make an appointment with your local dealer as soon as possible.

They are not something you should wait to get fixed

Even if you have a mechanic who normally does your servicing, you will need to go back to the dealer because the car company will only pay its own people to do the work, in line with its own strict conditions. But remember, the cost of a recall all falls on the company, not you, so you won't have to pay for parts or labour.

If you don't get the work done, you're not just risking your safety, and that of your car's occupants, but the resale value of your car down the track.

Where can I find out more?

See all recall stories here.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission maintains officials list of Product Safety Recalls for all kinds of products, including cars, on its website.

It's an interesting place to click through each brand and see how many recalls they've had, and what kind, and possibly worth having a look at before you choose a new car.