11 million vehicles recalled so far in 2014

Toyota, GM respond to problem that could affect air bag.

So far in 2014 — just over three months into the year — 11 million vehicles have been recalled in the United States.

That’s half of the 22 million vehicles recalled last year, itself a busy year for recalls and on pace to exceed the record 30.8 million recalls in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On Wednesday, Toyota and General Motors announced another round of recalls, this time affecting 6.4 million vehicles worldwide on some of its most popular models, including the Corolla, Highlander, RAV4, Tacoma and Yaris and GM’s Pontiac Vibe, built by Toyota.

Toyota’s recent massive spate of recalls — nearly 6.4 million vehicles worldwide — have not been linked to crashes or deaths, according to the automaker, although Toyota said engine starter issues led to two vehicle fires in Japan.

Both Toyota and GM said the recalls involve the “driver’s airbag module attached to a spiral cable assembly with electrical connections that could become damaged when the steering wheel is turned. If this occurs, the air bag warning lamp will illuminate. In addition, the driver’s air bag could become deactivated, causing it to not deploy in the event of a crash.” Toyota and GM is in the process of notifying affected owners.

But with more safety features standard on vehicles, and with increasingly rigorous crash test standards, Alec Gutierrez, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, a vehicle value and information source, said modern vehicles are not more dangerous.

“I would argue that cars of today are safer than the vehicles of five years ago, certainly 10 years ago,” Gutierrez said.

Instead, automakers are being more “proactive,” he said, particularly with government regulators and attorneys probing potential problems. GM’s ignition switch issues — which the automaker has linked to 13 deaths — came to light after years of legal action, Gutierrez said.

“I would expect to see automakers issuing recalls when there is any sort of hint at an issue,” he said. That’s especially true when an issue is a potential danger, such as an engine shutting down or an ignition being bumped to the “off” position while driving.

“No one (in the future) is going to wait for an accident to get on top of that,” Gutierrez said.

Backlog of defects

Auto manufacturers have a “backlog of defective vehicles,” and they have decided it’s better to recall them, to head off possible problems, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.

“Yes, they (cars) are safer than ever,” Ditlow said. “But they shouldn’t have defects.”

Ditlow contends that automakers are being proactive in order to be seen as responsive. “They’re being proactive in the short term, in that they don’t want headlines saying, ‘Toyota is resisting a recall,’” he said.

He credited widely publicized vehicle safety ratings for spurring automakers to recall vehicles before crashes or deaths are identified. Any vehicle that does not have a good safety reputation or ratings in crash tests will see sales suffer, Ditlow said.

The car sales search engine, ISeeCars.com, recently identified Mercedes-Benz has the automaker with the fewest recalls, with 0.41 cars recalled per car sold. Mazda Motor Co. — which announced on Saturday it was recalling 42,000 vehicles — was second with a recall rate of 0.55 cars recalled for every car sold, the site’s analysis said. GM is third on the list, at 0.65 vehicles recalled for every car sold.

The site said it analyzed federal recall data between 1985 and 2014, and sales data between 1980 and 2013, allowing cars five years on the road before tracking recalls.

For GM, that works out to 99.3 million vehicles recalled from 1985-2014 with 153.2 million vehicles sold between 1980 to 2013, ISeeCars.com said.

Vehicles still safer today

Phong Ly, chief executive of ISeeCars.com, agrees that vehicles are safer these days. But they are also most more complex.

“There is a lot more opportunity for any one thing to fail,” Ly said.

Also at work may be “an increased sensitivity” among automakers, an eagerness “to really get things out of the way,” he said.

“Manufacturers are just quicker on the trigger,” Ly said.

With vehicle recalls being announced almost daily, the news can have a numbing effect, unless recalls are concretely linked to accidents or deaths.

“We’ve received a few inquires, but it doesn’t seem to really resonate with the public,” said Christian Hahn, general manager of Joseph Airport Toyota in Vandalia.

Even with its recent recalls, GM saw a 7 percent increase in retail sales last month, Gutierrez said.

“There seems to be little or no reaction from the consumer’s perspective,” he said.

Ly isn’t so certain. He thinks a sales impact could come later.

“I think it may be too soon to say (if consumers are unaffected by recalls),” he said. “I think these things tend to work out over the long term. But there’s doubt there is reputational damage.”

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