It is the record no one wants to see broken, but everyone expects it will be. With yesterday’s recall of 3 million vehicles, automakers in the U.S. have recalled 31.4 million vehicles this year, easily surpassing last year’s total of 27.96 million in just under six months and within an eyelash of the record total of 33.01 million from 2004.
Automakers are certainly aware of dubious distinction they’re facing. Joe Hinrichs, president of the Americas, Ford Motor Co., notes there are “unique circumstances going on in the industry” right now. That said, Hinrichs insists Ford has not changed its corporate approach to recalls.
While General Motors is playing a central role in encroaching on the previous high-water mark with 17.7 million vehicles recalled this year, including 6 million recalled for faulty ignition switches, Ford may have a unique perspective on the current flurry of recalls. It wasn’t that long ago it was the poster child for automotive recalls due to the Firestone and Explorer debacle at the beginning of the decade.
“We always study what’s happening with our competitors,” he said, adding that the Dearborn, Michigan-based maker is paying close attention to GM. Hinrichs said the high number of recalls shows automakers are acting prudently to ensure consumer safety.
“With what’s transpired (in recent months), there’s a higher level of scrutiny” across the industry, he said.
While many look at the dizzying number of recalls as a sign of poor quality or lackadaisical attitudes about consumer safety, Hinrichs believes the recalls reflect the opposite.
“There is so much data out there you can act very quickly to protect your customers. There is a lot more data to work with in real time,” he said.
GM kicked off the frenzy when it recalled 2.6 million small cars for a problem with the ignition that would cut power to the vehicle, in particular the airbags. The problem is associated with 54 injuries and 13 deaths, according to GM, although critics suggest the totals are much higher.
The Detroit-based automaker discovered a similar problem with ignition switches in 3.4 million other vehicles earlier this month and issued a recall.
However, GM isn’t alone in this. Japanese automakers, once considered beacons of quality, have endured substantive recalls this year as well. Just since the beginning of this month, Japan’s five largest automakers have recalled nearly 6 million vehicles due to airbag problems.
Honda accounted for 1.02 million of the vehicles using faulty airbag igniters produced by Takata Inc., a Japanese supplier, which supplied similar components to six other automakers: Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, Chrysler and BMW.
This record number of recalls covers a number of different parts as well as external factors, such as high temperatures and humidity to simple electrical connections that need to be resoldered.
Perhaps the most alarming issue is the reticence of Americans to take the time to get vehicles repaired.
According to data tracked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an average one of every four vehicles covered by a safety recall will never be fixed.
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CarFax, an online service that tracks vehicle histories, estimates there are more than 36 million vehicles on U.S. roads with at least one recall-related repair not completed, some of them potentially quite deadly, including the aforementioned airbag issues.
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Mike Rozembajgier, a vice president of Stericycle, a firm that helps large corporations manage their images, says that in a year like this one, there might be a bit of “recall fatigue.” The headlines have become so frequent that consumer almost become numb or, worse, may think that automotive manufacturers and regulators are simply crying “Wolf,” over issues that don’t really matter.
There’s also concern that owners may simply mistake the recall notice they receive in the mail as just some more junk to be ignored and tossed away, despite the large, red label.
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Other owners simply procrastinate, and they’re the ones industry watchers consider the most likely to have several unattended defects with their vehicles. Considering the number of cars, trucks and crossovers impacted each year, and with the average vehicle on the road now about 11 years old, it’s common for many of them to be the target of multiple recalls before they head to the junkyard.
There’s also concern that the longer it takes for a manufacturer to stock the parts necessary to make repairs the more likely owners will simply forget to follow up. As of last week, GM service techs had reportedly completed replacing the faulty ignition switches on barely 180,000 of the 2.6 million vehicles covered by the recall. The maker is struggling to get enough parts from the supplier, Delphi, and is hoping to complete the recall by October.