TOPIC: Car recalls

If you are driving a recent General Motors car, odds are you have received a notice in the mail telling you that your vehicle has been recalled.

In the last five years, many of the largest car companies in the world — and some of their most popular models — have met the same fate.

No, a recall is not a free trip to the mechanic, where you get an oil change and a new set of wiper blades. And yes, it is an inconvenience to have your car in the shop for a little while.

But what else? To shed a little more light on the situation, let’s look through the recent history of large-scale vehicle recalls, especially this latest one.

TRUTH: Vehicle recalls are quite common.

Millions of vehicles are recalled annually. Back in 2010, Toyota was at the forefront with more than 5 million cars recalled in the United States alone. That was, at the time, a record.

It isn’t any longer.

General Motors has zoomed past, recalling another 8.45 million cars last month alone. That means in 2014, the American car company has already recalled a remarkable 29 million vehicles for a defect in the ignition switch. That’s more cars than the company has sold in the last eight years.

General Motors is under investigation for their lack of urgency in the recall. The ignition switch problems have been identified in the fatal crashes of at least two people, and others deaths could be pinned on it as well.

TRUTH: Recalls are not necessarily ruinous, nor do they indicate poor quality.

General Motors may be the exception to the rule on the ruinous bit, as the scope of their recall and the ill-guided attempt to cover up safety concerns have left the company in a profoundly difficult position.

Author Rick Newman reminds us in U.S. News and World Report that “virtually every manufacturer has to occasionally fix problems that slip through the manufacturing process. Automobiles are complicated machines with dozens of computers and thousands of moving parts, subject to bad roads, extreme temperatures, lousy drivers and outright abuse.”

But the challenge of every car company, currently GM most of all, is to convince customers that such recalls are rare, their fixes are easy and permanent and that the company is not just evading lawsuits or trying to take the cheapest way out. General Motors has a long way to go in that regard. This year’s sales figures will surely suffer.

LIE: My car hasn’t been recalled, so it’s free of defect.

Recalls are costly, in parts and labor and in bad publicity. Car companies want to avoid them whenever they can.

But sometimes the statistics and legal liability become too much to ignore. That’s when a recall is ordered. Most often, manufacturers carry out recalls without government involvement. However, federal investigators do have a role. Recently, it has been a bigger (if belated) one in the 2010 Toyota recall and this year’s GM debacle.

But manufacturer and government aside, there can still be problems with many models being driven on U.S. streets right now. There just aren’t enough complaints or evidence to currently support a recall.

That could change of course, as we note GM’s ever-growing list of cars they want to bring in for a check-up.

So don’t be surprised to open your mailbox someday soon and find yourself making a date with a dealership.

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