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More Cars Being Recalled, And That’s A Good Thing

By Aaron Crowe

The almost daily auto recalls by carmakers could be enough to scare someone to not drive again.

Recent reasons for recalls include losing all steering control, explosive air bags that could send shards of metal around a cabin, motorhome awnings that could unexpectedly unfurl and cause a crash, and unintentional shifting to neutral that could cause a vehicle to roll away.

The list of recalls and defects announced by manufacturers and regulated by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, or NHTSA, goes on and on with another recall that could become deadly. It reports about 600 recalls annually.

But regular recalls don’t necessarily mean that vehicles are becoming less safe. They’re actually good for consumers, helping to improve car safety by fixing problems and helping manufacturers learn how to make safer cars.

The number of recalls is going up, but the number of vehicles being recalled is going down, according to the Detroit News. Of six recent recalls that Chrysler had of 264,000 vehicles, none involved an accident or injury.

One reason for more recalls may be that automakers want to get ahead of the NHTSA in requiring a recall, which can lead to bad publicity. Being proactive on recalls could also help avoid lawsuits.

One of the most high-profile recalls was in 2010 when Toyota Motor Corp. was criticized for not notifying consumers after discovering potential problems with unintended acceleration in Japan. A fatal car crash in California brought the issue to U.S. drivers.

If manufacturers don’t voluntarily start a recall when a safety problem is found, the NHTSA can issue a recall. Most decisions to conduct a recall and fix a safety defect are made voluntarily by manufacturers before the NHTSA is involved, according to Safercar.gov, the NHTSA’s website on safety recalls.

Car owners are notified by mail of a recall, which is why it’s smart to alert your car maker of your new address when you move.

However, the federal government is more likely to issue safety recalls for older vehicles as cars are used more and vehicle owners report problems. A complaint can be filed by phone, mail or online form.

The NHTSA’s database is also searchable online for safety issues for vehicles, child restrains, tires and equipment. Federal law requires all recall repairs to be paid for by the manufacturer.

Along with automakers wanting to avoid mandated recalls by voluntarily recalling cars, there are a variety of reasons why recalls are increasing, says David Wood, an investigative reporter at CarComplaints.com, which tracks recalls. More manufacturers are sharing parts, which can lead to larger recalls, and the improved and expanded electronic components in cars leads to more things that can beak, Wood says.

“Just think of what’s in there,” he says of a car’s interior. “It’s turning more or less into an airplane cockpit now because of electronics.”

Recalls can also happen many years after a car is made because it can take that long for something like a seatbelt to break after a car door is slammed closed hard for years and years.

“It might be that it’s not just made to last,” Wood says.

One of the best-known recalls that offers a lesson in how carmakers can undervalue safety was the 1978 recall of the Ford Pinto after its gas tank was found to explode upon impact.

Ford did a risk-benefit analysis before the recall and determined that it was cheaper to pay $49.5 million in lawsuits for people who were killed or burned its cars than to pay $137 million to make the repairs.

Making an $11 change per vehicle was deemed more costly than the 180 less burn deaths and 180 less serious burn injuries that the repairs would prevent. Ford waited eight years after determining it wasn’t profitable to make the changes before it issued a recall.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.