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My car’s been recalled: Now what?

Due to the sheer number of vehicles recalled in the United States this year—more than 40 million—you very well may have a vehicle that is involved in some sort of safety-related service action.

So, the big question is: What do I do now?

First, don't ignore that notice. Experts warn that even seemingly minor recalls can involve life-threatening defects and must be dealt with. But don't get into your vehicle and drive to the nearest dealership expecting the repair to be completed while you wait. It doesn't work that way.


Eduardo Garcia | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

If you get a recall notice in the mail, read it carefully. It will tell you just about everything you need to know, including:

  • A description of what's wrong with the vehicle;
  • Any risks or hazards, including potential injury, posed by the problem;
  • Possible warning signs;
  • How the manufacturer plans to fix the problem;
  • When the repair will be available and how long it'll take;
  • Instructions on what to do next.

Generally, those instructions are pretty simple: make an appointment with your dealer so the problem can be fixed. Unfortunately, in a year when manufacturers have already rolled up a record number of recalls, scheduling an appointment may not be as easy as it seems. That's especially true for General Motors, which has so far recalled about 26 million vehicles in the U.S. alone. In a number of instances where recalls cover a particularly large number of vehicles -- such as the 2.6 million covered by the defective ignition switch problem announced in February—GM simply doesn't have enough replacement parts on hand to make the repairs and dealers certainly aren't equipped to handle the onslaught of vehicle owners.

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GM dealers have so far repaired only about 500,000 vehicles involved in the ignition switch recall. The supplier of the ignition, Delphi Corp., has produced 1 million repair kits and expects that number to rise to 2 million by the end of August. But it is expected to take until October to finish the repair process.

Other makers are running into similar challenges. In fact, federal regulators are pushing Chrysler to speed up a recall for a Jeep fuel tank problem announced a year ago.

What worries regulators and safety advocates is the possibility that vehicle owners who are repeatedly being told to wait this year will eventually forget about a recall and never get the vehicle fixed. That's already a significant problem.

Read MoreGM profit falls on recall costs

On average, only about 70 percent of the vehicles subject to a recall ever actually undergo repairs.

Under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers are taking aggressive steps to increase the recall response rate. They are sending follow-up notices informing owners to make arrangements with dealers to get the repairs done, with some manufacturers even making follow-up phone calls. However, they can't necessarily reach every vehicle owner. That's an especially serious problem with older vehicles that might have been resold—sometimes several times.

The good news is that owners are now getting tools to make it easier for them to find out if their vehicles are subject to a recall. If an owner suspects a problem, they can use a database compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by going to www.nhtsa.gov or www.safercar.gov. And as of next month, every automaker will have to provide consumers with ready access to their own online recall databases.

NHTSA stresses that just because an owner doesn't receive a recall notice doesn't mean that manufacturers don't have to honor the recall.

Read MoreChrysler recalls Jeep SUVs for ignition switch issues

And owners should understand that they do not have to pay for recall repairs. If you had a repair completed prior to a recall being issued, it is possible to get the cost of those repairs refunded, according to the government agency.

The statute of limitations, according to NHTSA, for all no-charge recall repairs is 10 years from the original sale date of the vehicle. However, one exception is tires. Tire recall repairs must be completed within 60 days of receiving a recall notice.

By Michael Strong. CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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