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Auto Industry Suffers Record Year for Recalls

Thanks in part to a decades-old GM ignition switch problem in millions of vehicles, more older-model cars were recalled this year than ever before in history.

The net result is that over “60 million vehicles have been recalled in the United States, double the previous annual record in 2004. In all, there have been about 700 recall announcements — an average of two a day — affecting the equivalent of one in five vehicles on the road.”

Also, by the numbers, eight of the largest car makers recalled more cars this year than they have since 1966 when tracking began.

Some in the industry claim this year is changing the very nature of the business. The New York Times writes:

“What you’re seeing is the makeover of the entire industry,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s senior sales executive in the United States.

The auto industry’s intense focus on neglected safety issues has changed the way it approaches even the most basic safety practices.

Like most automakers, Toyota routinely notifies car owners of safety recalls with the minimum legal requirement of mailing a first-class letter.

Naturally, it’s the consumer who seems to be suffering the worst. The ignition switch issue cited above has also been linked to several deaths.

“I keep getting recall letters as I’m waiting for one thing and no parts available for another,” a driver of a 2013 Dodge Durango complained to safety regulators this month. “How is one supposed to feel safe, knowing my car can ‘stall without warning,’ have an ‘under hood fire’ or have my ‘brakes fail’ at any moment?”

In addition to car makers rethinking their approach to recalls and customer relations in this regard, the federal government has been getting increasingly involved.

The G.M. crisis, in particular, has prompted concern in Washington that carmakers have become lax on safety, combative with regulators and insensitive to consumers.

After seven congressional hearings and, in G.M.’s case, multiple continuing state and federal investigations, some lawmakers say they are convinced that only stiffer fines and the threat of criminal prosecution will motivate companies to make safety a top priority.

“What we have seen is a lack of sufficient incentives for companies to correct safety defects and act responsibly,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

G.M. has already been fined $35 million by the government for its failure to address the faulty switches, and it remains under investigation by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and 47 state attorneys general. Separately, the attorney general of Arizona filed suit against the automaker in November, claiming it had defrauded consumers in that state of $3 billion.

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