Recall mania!

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The embarrassment suffered by Toyota is likely to have a bracing effect on other automakers causing a potential tsunami of recalls, industry sources say.

But all those recalls might not make you any safer, experts say. In fact, the flood of alerts might just make things more dangerous.

Around the time Toyota faced its first congressional hearing, numerous automakers announced recalls for a variety of issues.

On March 2, General Motors recalled 1.3 million Chevrolet Cobalt compact cars for a potential loss of power steering, even though the automaker still hadn't come up with a way to fix the problem.

A few days earlier, Hyundai announced it was recalling 2011 Sonatas, a model that had only recently entered the market, over a potential problem with door latches. Nissan also recalled 540,000 vehicles over problems with brake pedals and fuel gauges and Mazda recalled Mazda5 compact vans over a potentially malfunctioning seat heater.

Hundreds of vehicles are recalled every year in America and at least some of those announced during that week would likely have been recalled anyway. Even so, that's an extraordinary run of vehicle recalls in such a short period. And, industry sources say, there's more going on than just a random spike.

Having seen what happed to Toyota, automakers are rushing to clear out any potential safety issues lurking in their corporate closets, said Mike Rozembajgier, director of recalls for ExpertRecall, a company that assists automakers and other companies handle the logistics of product recalls.

"We've got to look at our own quality and make sure that all our i's are dotted and all our t's are crossed," automakers are now thinking, Rozembajgier said.

This process occurs in any industry where there's been a big, high-profile recall, he said. Competitors treat it as an indication of what could happen to them if they let something slip.

Sources at some major automakers, none of whom wished to be identified, acknowledged a general concern in the industry that even relatively minor potential defects need to be taken care of quickly.

"They're cleaning out the desk drawers," one source said.

This could mean an uptick in recalls, but it's not clear it's going to mean a real uptick in safety, said Leonard Evans, an auto safety consultant and author of the book "Traffic Safety."

If history is any guide, Evans said, recalls actually do little to improve overall safety on the roads.

"In 2004, more than 30 million vehicle recalls were issued," he said. "That was about 1.7 recalls for every new vehicle sold."

More motor vehicles were recalled that year than in any other since official recalls began in the 1960s. Recalls that year included everything from possible stereo speaker fires in Chrysler Town & Country minivans to loose steering bolts in Maseratis and weak parking brakes in Jaguar X-types.

Even with all that activity, overall death rates from crashes didn't budge, Evans pointed out, for the simple reason that the vast majority of crashes have nothing to do with vehicle defects. Almost 40,000 people are killed annually in car crashes in America and vast majority of those deaths are caused by people, not by their cars.

To make matters worse, a spike in recalls is also likely to confuse consumers with a flood of recall news and notices.

"It's going to cause so much activity that the important stuff is more likely to get lost in the shuffle," he said.

As it is, about one in four recalled cars never get fixed, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There can be no question, though, that fixing cars with truly dangerous defects makes everyone at least a little safer, even if the lives saved don't show up in aggregate statistics, said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of the automotive Web site, Edmunds.com.

"If these things are being that much more quickly addressed by the manufacturer," he said, "certainly that will make us safer."

Brauer also expects an upturn in recalls in coming weeks, thanks to heightened sensitivity. It might be short-lived, though, he thinks as things begin to settle down, and that might not be a bad thing.

"It's a tricky balancing act," he said. To top of page

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