|By Robert Duffer, Chicago Tribune|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
Recalls have become as much a part of the automotive industry as engines. Recalls are up 4 percent from the previous decade while auto sales have decreased by 10 percent. Despite an unparalleled level of mechanical and electric sophistication in modern cars, we're buying fewer cars and holding onto them longer.
The U.S. is mired in another recall that has reached the highest levels of scrutiny. In March of 2014,
In 2013, more cars were recalled than were sold by nearly 45 percent. For 2014, the automotive industry is on pace to surpass the historic high of 30 million vehicles recalled in 2004. So far this year, GM has recalled over 6.3 million vehicles,
"The only thing worse than a big recall is a missed recall that causes injuries or fatalities and proves to be a fatal mistake," says
There have been three major recalls, marked by highly-publicized and horrific fatalities, that have defined the era of total recall in
In 2000, Firestone tire treads separated on the Ford Explorer SUV and caused it to roll over;
The current GM ignition-switch recall has totaled 2.6 million vehicles with ignition switches that unexpectedly turn off engines while driving, leaving airbags, power steering and power brakes inoperable.
119 deaths were attributed to the Ford-Firestone recall in the U.S.; 89 in
It's hard to pin down an exact number because reconstructing a fatal wreck to determine what worked and didn't work is an intricate and complex process complicated by the number of parts and the operational and circumstantial conditions.
Automakers are under as much scrutiny as the
As Acting NHTSA Administrator
The agency reviews more than 40,000 consumer complaints a year, which it codes by automotive part, make and model year. Based on these complaints, NHTSA will probe or investigate an automaker. These are categorized as "influenced" recalls.
"Uninfluenced" recalls are initiated by an automaker. If a defect has been found internally by an automaker and not reported to NHTSA within 5 days, they'll be subjected to steep fines. Automakers have paid more than
Uninfluenced recalls are part of NHTSA's strategy of encouraging good corporate governance and responsible vehicle safety.
68.2 percent of recalls were uninfluenced in 2013, and there have been more uninfluenced recalls than influenced recalls in all but one year since 2009, suggesting that the threat of fines are positively affecting the profit equation when it comes to recalls.
But when things go wrong, the reporting process still seems subject to inconsistency and vagaries.
It wasn't enough.
"A massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads," said Sen,
In essence, the proposed legislation encourages the public to regulate the regulators.
NHTSA's investigative arm has received just
To put it in another perspective, the auto industry's 2013 estimated sales revenue was
This is simplistic math, but it illustrates the disparity between a mega industry and an undermatched investigative regulatory body.
Some recalls don't seem threatening and may leave people shaking their heads, like the quarter million
Consumers seem to be accepting it.
Automakers that were once lauded for their quality have been afflicted by recalls in the past decade.
These brands were not typically associated with recalls.
"It's not so much the number of recalls but the quality of the recall experience, especially since brand loyalty does not have the cachet of the past," Brauer says.
Ford's market share slid 7 percent in the years following the 2000 Ford-Firestone fiasco but has been on the uptick since the recession. Market share appears to be affected less by major recalls than from more automakers competing in so many more segments. Customers have the opportunity to be fickle and every automaker has recalls.
Accustomed to software updates on high-end technological devices, consumers may be more accepting, or tolerant of recalls than in past generations.
Recalls have become so commonplace that auto dealers can use them as a demonstration to build brand loyalty and show that they care about the customers buying their products.
"What a great opportunity for dealerships to say 'I'm taking care of you, this is where you should take your car to be serviced even after the warranty expires,'" says
Considering today's global automotive landscape, where the same part can be used not just across model lines but by several different automakers, it makes sense that one recall would affect so many more vehicles.
Consider the case of the faulty
All of these recalls tend to blur the positive fact arising from them: Vehicle-related fatalities are at historic lows.
"Even though recalls may be up, vehicles have never been safer," says
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the average number of annual motor vehicle fatalities has dropped 8 percent in the past decade from the previous decade. From 1994-2003 the annual average was 37,489; over the next nine years, from 2004-2012 (2013 numbers have not been finalized), the average was 34,412. In the past 5 years, however, the average has dipped below 30,000 fatalities.
More rigorous safety standards and more sophisticated safety features are the primary reason motor vehicle fatalities are at their lowest since 1950.
The era of mass recalls is also helping improve safety, if after the fact.
In the wake of the
NHTSA has also proposed for all keyless systems to operate the same so that in the case of a sudden acceleration emergency, drivers can hold down the start button for a half-second instead of 3 seconds to shut down the car.
In this new era of technologically advanced cars, the car-buying public must inform itself to ensure its safety, as well.
Despite the improvements in safety and self-regulation, recalls are still occurring after the fact of fatalities. That's what stinks at the highest levels.
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