Thousands of remote starters in Canadian vehicles have been recalled because they could cause the vehicle to shut down suddenly without notice.

For drivers, that could present a real danger, but there is no way to know exactly how many vehicles are affected.

recall sign

About 8,000 vehicles are affected by the remote starter safety recall, but it's been difficult to contact affected consumers. (CBC News)

And critics say many of the owners of those vehicles likely aren't aware of the recall.

"I'd be worried that somebody could be hurt or seriously injured," said Charles Lamble, owner and operator of Car Trek Auto Sound & Security in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Lamble said his company installs 500 to 600 remote starters per year.  It is an aftermarket product and not on new cars.

Directed issues massive recall

He said he was notified about the recall in July by Directed, a California-based manufacturer.

In a notice posted on the company's website, Directed says the recall covers Directed's Autostart Remote Start System or DBALL interface that has been installed with Viper, Clifford, Python, Automate, Astrostart, Orbit, Avital and Autostart products, and installed on vehicles with a push button ignition manufactured between 2008 and 2015.  

'Remote starters get given as Christmas presents, get passed around. So there's really no way of tracking backwards to find out who might have an affected vehicle.' — Charles Lamble of Car Trek

Directed says it issued the recall because "in certain installation configurations, the remote start or interface product may cause unintended vehicle shutdown."

"If you lose the power from your engine, you're going to lose your power brakes, power steering, supplemental airbags. It's as if someone turned the key off while you're driving." said Lamble.

Directed says the repair involves a simple software update that a qualified technician should be able to perform in about 30 minutes.

The search is on

The problem is finding the vehicles that need to be repaired.

"In this industry there is no real regulation that forces us to track who gets what product," said Lamble.

Charles Lamble, Car Trek Auto Sound & Security

Charles Lamble owner of Car Trek Auto Sound & Security in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., worries about unsafe vehicles on the road. (CBC)

"Remote car starters are sold in a lot of big box stores as well as brick and mortar retailers like myself. People trade their cars. Remote starters get given as Christmas presents, get passed around. So there's really no way of tracking backwards to find out who might have an affected vehicle," said Lamble.

Lamble said that puts the onus on the car owner "to understand that there's a problem and go somewhere and be assured that their car is safe."

All-too common problem

"It's a concern." said George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association.

Iny said he's happy that Directed issued what he calls a "robust" recall.

But he said Canada's lack of a regulatory framework for notifying owners of recalled aftermarket products means many don't know they may have a problem under their hood.

"Even if you're the original owner, you probably didn't inquire too carefully about what brand of device you have, and here we have several models and sub-models included. It's quite possible that many people don't know what brand of remote starter they have." 

Iny said this is also an issue with other aftermarket products for vehicles.

"Not all tire purchases are traceable when there's a tire recall," Iny said.

"A lot of the low-end tires today are made in China. They're brought in as private-label imports. There's no evidence that that importer would have the financial solvency and muscle and expertise to execute a recall, but they bring the tires in anyway. I guess we live with that. It's probably something that needs a closer look."

In Canada, the Directed recall is being handled by Health Canada.  

Government delay

Health Canada posted Directed's recall on its website on Sept. 23, nearly two months after Directed itself issued the recall.  

In an email to CBC, Health Canada said the delay resulted from an internal government discussion with Transport Canada to determine jurisdiction.

Health Canada's notice tells consumers there were 883,545 units of the recalled products sold in Canada by automotive dealers and various other retailers, a number that seems too large. That number represents the total number of Directed Remote starters sold to vendors in Canada and is quite different from the number given by Directed itself.

Health Canada tells CBC News it is "unaware of the actual number" of those starters that need to be repaired.  

"Product safety recalls are a real issue … because they are not handled in general as efficiently as auto recalls — which themselves have some room for improvement," said the APA's Iny. "I would be very surprised if in the universe of vehicles affected by this recall, if even 50 per cent of them are actually corrected."

Most vehicles not repaired

In fact, the percentage is far lower than that.

Directed tells CBC news it estimates approximately 8,000 vehicles in Canada have remote starters that are affected by the recall. So far, 109 units have been returned by consumers in Canada and have been repaired.  

That's a repair rate of just over one per cent.

This despite an extensive public campaign by Directed, which said it informed all the consumers that have purchased a system that have provided their information to the company.

Directed said it informed governments in both Canada and the U.S., as well as dealers of its products.

The company issued a press release on Canada Newswire the same day it posted the notice on its own website.  

Directed even produced a YouTube video to help customers determine if they are affected by the recall.

Directed also said that of the approximately 8,000 vehicles it believes need the repair, about one per cent will actually experience the engine shutdown that prompted the company to issue the recall.

The company said those figures are estimates based on a number of different variables.  

Got a consumer issue?  Contact Aaron Saltzman, senior reporter, consumer affairs.