Image:
Mel Evans  /  AP
Last week Ford recalled  1.2 million F-150 pickup truck after reports of air bags unexpectedly inflating, even if there's no crash.
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updated 4/21/2011 11:10:46 AM ET 2011-04-21T15:10:46

Most cars and trucks get recalled at some point in their lives. So don't be surprised if a letter arrives telling you to bring in your vehicle for repairs. Recalls address safety problems, even if they are minor.

Last year, for example, automakers called back more than 20 million vehicles in the U.S. That's the most since 2004. Just last week, a recall of the Ford F-150 pickup ballooned to 1.2 million vehicles.

Do not be alarmed if your car or truck is recalled, but do take action.

1. Do the repairs
In a recall, you'll get a letter telling you to bring your vehicle to a dealer for free repairs. Sounds simple, right? Yet 30 percent of owners never take the time to get the work done. Recalls don't mean every affected vehicle will have a problem, but why take a chance? Take the F-150 recall. The air bags could inflate unexpectedly even if there's no crash, mainly on 2004, 2005 and some 2006 models. It's only happened 269 times, but what if it goes off while you're driving?

"The bottom line is it's a free repair. Get it done. It may save your life," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

2. Be aggressive
Recalls are reported by the news media, but it takes a month or more after that for car companies to mail out letters to owners, and to send parts and instructions to dealers. If your car shows signs of the problem, don't wait for the recall letter. Call your dealer and have the problem checked. In the F-150 case, a warning light is supposed to come on before the air bag deploys.

3. Check for recalls
When automakers announce recalls, they search state databases to find owners. But if you've moved a lot or have a used car, they may not find you. It's a good idea to search the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database for recalls. Go to www.safercar.gov . Click on vehicle recalls and plug in the year and model of your car. If you find one, call your dealer or the automaker's customer service line and ask if it was fixed. They can tell from your vehicle identification number, which should be on your state registration documents and is on the top of a car's dashboard. You can also use the number to search for your car on many automaker websites.

4. Get e-mail alerts
NHTSA will alert you by e-mail when your car is recalled. You can sign up on the agency's website.

5. Other repairs.
Things often go wrong with cars that aren't big enough to cause a recall. Automakers issue "technical service bulletins" to dealers telling them to fix cars when they come in for other repairs. It's difficult for a consumer to check for the bulletins, but some information is on websites set up by car enthusiasts, said Jeff Bartlett, deputy autos editor at Consumer Reports. Otherwise, a dealer and some larger independent car repair garages can get the information.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Ford Truck Trouble

Photos: New York auto show

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  1. A model stands next to a Chrysler 300 S on display at the 2011 New York auto show in New York City. Held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, the show is open to the public from Friday, April 22 through Sunday, May 1. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gene Simmons (right), Eric Singer (center) and Tommy Thayer of the band Kiss appear on stage at the Mini news conference at the 2011 New York auto show. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Saab PhoeniX concept car is displayed during the 2011 New York auto show. The vehicle showcases design features and technologies which will shape the next generation of cars from Saab, the automaker says. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Scion Vice President Jack Hollis walks around the Scion FRS-S concept car at the 2011 New York auto show. Toyota is taking its youth-oriented Scion division — known for the boxy xB — in a new direction with the sexy, rear-wheel-drive sports car. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The 2012 Hyundai Veloster is polished as it sits on display at the 2011 New York auto show. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The new Volkswagen Bulli on display at the 2011 New York auto show. VW has resurrected its iconic microbus, which debuted in 1950 and became a favorite of hippies for its unique styling and copious space for travelers. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Toyota Prius c concept car is shown during the press preview to the 2011 New York auto show. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of the press gather around the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman during the 2011 New York auto show. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Lexus LF-Gh hybrid concept car is unveiled at a press event on the eve of the 2011 New York auto show. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The 2012 Ford Focus, which boasts 40 mpg, is shown on the floor of the 2011 New York auto show. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The front light of a Boxster S Porsche is shown at the 2011 New York auto show. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe makes its official debut at the 2011 New York auto show. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel introduces the 2012 Honda Civic lineup at the 2011 New York show. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Mercedes-Benz A Class concept car is seen on display at the 2011 New York auto show. (Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The Nissan Leaf Nismo RC is shown at the 2011 New York auto show. The car uses a production Nisan LEAF electric powertrain wrapped in a unique two-door carbon fiber body with removable front and rear sections and a large adjustable rear wing. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Members of the automotive press inspect the new 2012 Honda Civic Si at a press event during the 2011 New York auto show. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The 2011 Suzuki Kizashi on display during the 2011 New York auto show. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A worker cleans the mirrors covering a Smart Electric Drive -- a battery-electric version of the Smart Fortwo micro car -- during the 2011 New York auto show. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Model next to Chrysler 300 S on display at New York International Auto Show
    Mike Segar / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (18) Cars that rocked the Big Apple - New York auto show
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (23) Cars that rocked the Big Apple - Shanghai auto show

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