Around a year ago, I tried to turn on my headlights on my 2008 Honda Fit, and they did not come on. “Huh,” I thought, “I should fix that.” Instead of fixing it, I drove around for a couple weeks using my brights, because I’m a lazy asshole. When I finally did take it into the shop (it needed a few other things done), they told me that there was an open recall for a problem that could render the low-beams inoperable. Who knew!

Recalls, to me, are sort of like Christmas presents. I’ll drop my car off at the dealership for some maintenance, and then when I come back to pick it up, they’ll explain that in addition to the work I authorized, they also completed a recall or two. Which feels like a free upgrade, even though I know that a recall means that, in fact, Honda fucked something up, and usually something that can end your life. As I sat down to write this blog, for example, I went to Honda’s website to see exactly what things the 2008 Fit had been recalled for, and noticed that my car has an open recall on it right now, and not a small one: the passenger side airbag could spray metal fragments on my passenger’s face. Which is great; time to go back to the dealership.

Anyway. I suspect that the way I approach recalls—with the opposite of a sense of urgency—is the way most Americans do as well, and Automotive News is out today with a long story worth reading in full about recalls with numbers that back that suspicion up. In short, Americans are pretty bad with recalls, which is because in most states there’s no legal mechanism compelling owners to get them done. They’re also easy to forget about, since the vast majority are announced via snail mail.

From Automotive News:

Automakers initiated 927 separate recall campaigns affecting a record 53.2 million vehicles, up from 51 million vehicles the year prior. More than 53 million vehicles — about a quarter of the total number on U.S. roads — are operating with unresolved safety recalls, according to NHTSA.

Closing out open recalls on vehicles with known defects is a challenge for automakers and regulators. Only about 70 percent of vehicles recalled are ever fixed, putting drivers, passengers and other road users at risk. The rate drops to 44 percent for vehicles 5 to 10 years old and plummets to 15 percent for vehicles older than 10 years, according to government and industry data.

The completion rate lags Japan (80 percent), Germany (100 percent) and the United Kingdom (92 percent), the Department of Transportation’s inspector general said in a 2011 report. NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation considered a 65 percent recall compliance rate satisfactory until [former NHTSA administrator Mike Rosekind] set a new goal of 100 percent.

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Fifty-three million vehicles on the road with open recalls! Jesus. Surely states, which do all of the registering of vehicles in this country, are helping to solve this problem as we speak.

Many state motor vehicle departments don’t want to tie registration to recalls because their antiquated computer systems can’t handle collecting, integrating and printing recall data; they lack legal authority to withhold registration without direction from legislatures; and they fear a consumer backlash, especially if it disproportionately affects poorer drivers with older vehicles or when repair parts are not available, industry and public safety experts say. They also are overwhelmed by other orders from federal and state officials.

Oh. How do they manage to do so much better overseas, then?

Recall closeout rates are higher in Germany and the U.K., the DOT audit suggested, because those countries have laws that require outstanding recalls to be closed before registration is permitted. A vehicle with an open recall is declared inoperable.

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Ah, look at that! A functioning bureaucracy.

Anyway. The way forward, Automotive News suggests, is for the federal government to get involved in some capacity, either through new legislation (lol) or through existing agencies, like the EPA, which technically can force some states to deny registration to cars that have open emissions-related recalls, though it currently doesn’t.

In the current climate, I wouldn’t bet on either, which means, for now, we’re left with what we have. That would be cars like mine with non-functioning headlights. The interesting part of this story is that when I picked up my car, the dealership said the reason they weren’t working had nothing to do with the recall. In fact, the bulbs were just out, both somehow managing to go out at the exact same time. Which is either true, or, Honda is engaged in some kind of complex gaslighting campaign, aimed specifically at me. They did replace my key, though, for no apparent reason at all.