Despite recent uptick, safety recalls are declining

(June 2010) Toyota's highly publicized safety recall of 2.2 million cars in February seemed to precipitate a run of recent safety recalls by other automakers including General Motors, Chrysler, Honda and Hyundai. And 2010 overall is on pace for what could be the highest number of total recalled vehicles in this country since 2005.

But new analysis by also demonstrates that the number of vehicles affected by industry safety recalls these days has declined dramatically compared with the record levels of a decade ago.

Last year, the total recalled reached 15.4 million after a 14-year-low total of 9 million recalled vehicles in 2008.

Through June 3, the number of separate recall actions, 81, puts this year about on the same full-year pace as the number of separate recall actions of the past decade, an average of 164 per year, data shows.

According to the analysis, the total number of vehicles recalled through June 3 in the U.S. market, about 8.7 million. The number increases to 10 million plus when the 1.5 million GM vehicles recalled in June are added in. The average number of vehicles recalled in each of the last decade was 18.1 million a year.

"The annualized 2010 safety recall of around 18 million vehicles is somewhat above the five-year moving average of recalls and is up from last year, but still remains below the 10-year average," noted Senior Analyst Ray Zhou, PhD. "In other words, 2010 halted the downward trend of recalls -- for now -- and bounced up a bit from recent lows."

Zhou attributes the uptick in recalls to: automakers being more cautious after Toyota was accused of dragging its feet on recalls; more complex, highly technical vehicles introduced in the market that increase the possibility of things going wrong; and drivers' higher expectations and increased awareness of potential safety issues, which make them more likely to report problems.

"The big Toyota recall got a lot of attention for a variety of reasons, and it made American consumers more aware of safety recalls than at any time since the big Ford-Firestone tire fiasco a decade ago," said Dan Edmunds,'s director of vehicle testing. But, added, Edmunds, the level of overall vehicle-recall activity doesn't suggest any greater reasons for long-term concern by consumers.

"In fact," Edmunds said, "automakers as a whole have become increasingly diligent not only about safety and reliability but also about reporting any problems with their vehicles and, in many cases, recalling them more quickly than in past practice."

Other analysts agreed. "There's been widespread engagement of the public lately on the issue of recalls," said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumers Union, which tests cars at its own track in East Haddam, Conn., and publishes Consumer Reports. "But it's really in their best interests. We don't want to get to the point where we're penalizing manufacturers for bringing back cars and making them right."

The history of safety and reliability of vehicles sold in the U.S. market largely is one of remarkable and steady progress over the last half-century, propelled by new technologies and designs fed by the R&D efforts of OEMs and their suppliers, by effective regulatory vigilance, and by periods of heightened public pressure in the wake of episodes that uncover egregious safety problems in particular vehicles.

 The modern automotive-safety regime began with the 1965 publication of "Unsafe at Any Speed," Ralph Nader's book that documented how penny-pinching by General Motors had created a tendency toward rollover accidents in its sporty, rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair. In the aftermath arose a cottage industry, headed by Nader, of car-safety activism that has kept heat on automakers and on the federal government ever since to make continual improvements and to come clean about problems.

A spasm of public concern eventually prompted Ford, for example, in 1978, to recall its Pinto compacts after 27 people had died in accidents attributed to gasoline tanks that exploded when the cars were rear-ended. And during the Eighties, GM fumbled badly on the issue of the reliability of brakes in its popular X-car compacts and recalled 240,000 of them.

More recently, in 2000, Ford's problems with tire-tread separation and rollover accidents in SUVs outfitted with Firestone tires created a huge public outcry, and the automaker eventually recalled 14.4 million vehicles to deal with it.

Ford's action, in fact, was the centerpiece of a record year of safety recalls in the U.S. both in terms of the number of vehicles covered in 2000 - a total of 37.9 million, according to research - as well as the number of separate recall actions by automakers, 228.

Those numbers in 2000 compared with a total of 22.6 million vehicles in 1999, in 149 separate recall actions. The following year capped a three-year period of intense recall activity, with 28.6 million vehicles covered by 159 individual recall actions in 2001.

Only one other year in the past decade has seen a similar spike in recalled vehicles, the research shows: 29.8 million vehicles in 2004, in 220 separate actions. Otherwise, no more than a total of 20 million vehicles have been recalled in any single year in the past decade.

But the reality of a steadily improving recall picture over the last 10 years seemed to have been blown away early this year after a smattering of media reports eventually led to Toyota's unprecedented recall.

Toyota's fiasco was spectacular for at least a couple of reasons. The first was that Toyota had established an unequalled reputation for reliability, so its major safety recall was interpreted as an indicator that things might be amiss in the industry as a whole.

The second reason was that the Toyota campaign became particularly messy, with the company unable to determine conclusively the reasons for unintended acceleration - and battling in some cases what turned out to be apocryphal stories about accidents because of the problem, as well as a U.S. Congress intent on taking the scalp of a foreign-based automaker.

"People hear about this mess and become worried about it, and one of the things that makes recalls seem more prevalent in that context is the media and how information is so readily available online also," said Jeffrey Gorcyca, co-managing partner in the Detroit office of the law firm Bowman and Brooke, who has tried and won safety cases for manufacturers, including Ford in the Firestone-tire era.

A third reason that the Toyota recall created heightened concern is that some other automakers seemed to take advantage of Toyota's difficulties by announcing their own safety recalls in the wake of Toyota's action. In fact, some experts expect that the rate of recall actions and numbers of vehicles affected for the rest of 2010 could ease significantly from the first half of the year, because the Toyota action "pulled forward" recalls that other automakers had in the oven anyway.

Within days of Toyota's recall, for instance, Honda announced its own recall of more than 600,000 vehicles for potentially defective window switches. Then  Hyundai recalled Sonatas for bad door latches. And earlier this month, GM recalled 1.5 million vehicles that had been outfitted with a potentially faulty system for heating windshield-wiper fluid. Then, Chrysler recalled nearly 600,000 Jeeps and minivans for brake-line and wiring defects.

Yet, all of this activity generally belies a situation in which American consumers actually have less to be concerned about than ever. One evidence is the fact that, in 2008, the rate of motor-vehicle crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled by Americans reached an all-time low of 1.25, compared with a rate of 3.35 in 1975.

"Quality standards have improved considerably, but so has industry oversight and regulation," said Stephen Spivey, a senior industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan's automotive and transportation practice. "And I think our legal system encourages companies to recall products proactively instead of waiting for something to go wrong."

Without a doubt, the quality and reliability of the U.S. automotive fleet continues to improve.

"Despite all the attention devoted to the Toyota problem, vehicle defects are not a substantial threat to the motoring public," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in Washington, D.C. "Vehicles are the safest they've ever been. Automakers compete on safety. They strive to earn the highest crash ratings, then use the results in their advertising."

Yet, millions of vehicles are still recalled each year, whether or not a major incident like the Toyota recall is making headlines.

Despite better vehicles, the reality is that "virtually every car has at least one recall," said Fisher of Consumers Union. "Whatever you buy, chances are that it will be recalled within its lifetime."

One reason for the continuing stream of recalls is that the components and systems of vehicles change somewhat unpredictably as they age, and cars and trucks now are lasting longer than ever.

"Aging is one of the most difficult things to look at," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Mich. One instance where age was a factor, he said, was Ford's 2007 recall of about 3.6 million pick-up trucks and other vehicles for wiring-harness problems.

"You can test these things at high or low temperatures, but you can't perfectly simulate the impact of aging," Cole said. "And you can't wait 15 years to introduce innovations in engineering in order to wait to get all the data on how they will age."

Another factor in the yearly recall of millions of vehicles is that they've become much more complex machines, especially electronically.

"Predominantly what we're finding is that the recalls now involve things like navigation systems, and electronics that cars never had before," Fisher said. "Even the smallest cars now have power windows and seats. It's not engine or transmission failures like it used to be."

Yet another reason for a continued spotlight on vehicle safety is the passage of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act in 2000, in the wake of the Ford-Firestone episode. Among other things, it created tighter accountability of automakers to the federal government in matters of notification of potential safety problems - and greater penalties if it's proven ultimately that they kept dangerous secrets.

And at least one ancient warrior in the auto-safety wars believes that Democratic administrations, like Barack Obama's, force more recalls by the industry than Republican ones.

"There were more than 300 recalls a year under Carter, then it fell to under 200 a year under Reagan," noted Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Washington, D.C. "And in the 2000 timeframe [during the Clinton administration] we got much bigger numbers again."

— Dale Buss, contributing writer,