Does the latest recall news have you wondering whether many of the automobiles driving on U.S. streets and highways are dangerous? It seems like there’s a news report about recalls almost daily – almost 20 announced so far this month.
In fact, automobiles are safer today than they have ever been. And the newer the vehicle, the safer it is – whether there’s been a recall notice on it or not. That is not a contradiction because behind the many recalls there are several different dynamics at work, including advanced technology and engineering, automobile manufacturing methods, politics, and the 24-hour news cycle. They all converge in this latest wave of recalls.
The average age of automobiles in the United States is about 11 years, so consumers who have been waiting for improvement in the economy – and their own personal finances –are beginning to think about buying new cars. Not surprisingly, they want their new cars to be the most technologically advanced possible, and include every bell and whistle they can afford, because they will probably hang on to that car for several years. After all, a new car is barely broken in at 100,000 miles.
This demand for highly advanced machines means there’s a lot more in those automobiles that can go wrong. Manufacturers are constantly testing their technology and when they find there’s a problem, especially a safety problem, they voluntarily recall the affected vehicles without any prompting from the government. If the government has to intervene it can result in big fines to the manufacturers, so they’re becoming even more vigilant about ferreting out any safety defects.
As the technology becomes more complex, and more expensive to research and develop, automakers are finding ways to use the same technology in several models, thereby keeping consumer prices lower. But this also means that if a safety defect is found in one model it will necessitate recalling all of the models in which that technology is used, driving up the number of recalled vehicles.
Politics plays a role in recalls, too. The recent problems with Toyotas and Chevrolets are good examples. While these manufacturers should have voluntarily recalled their defective vehicles the NHTSA also bears some responsibility for not investigating as soon as problems were identified. Now, with Congress and the public watching, NHTSA is being very aggressive about investigating complaints. A case in point is a recent investigation on 2014 Chevrolet Impalas for a fuel-line problem after a single consumer inquiry. Of course, the government should be very careful where human safety is involved. Nevertheless, this will result in a higher number of recalls and more news about recalls than ever.
News about recalls, while providing an important public service, also serves to magnify the impact of recalls. Reporting has gone from a daily newspaper and single newscast to a 24-hour news cycle with huge competition to make every story more detailed and more interesting. What once might have been a matter-of-fact announcement of a vehicle recall now is repeated many times and advanced with video, multiple interviews, reporter talk-backs and snappy graphics.
The upside is that consumers are more conscious than ever of safety. It provides us in the automotive industry the opportunity to highlight the ever-increasing number of safety features that new vehicles have. For example, in the last few years vehicles have added anti-lock brakes, more air bags, collision and lane departure warning, adaptive headlights and many more features. Cars don’t drive themselves – though that’s in the works, too – but they certainly help protect their drivers in more ways than ever before, and the rate of fatal accidents has dropped consistently as a result.
The news about recalls may also help us all to focus on safety, prompting us to drive more carefully by not engaging in distracted driving or driving while intoxicated, getting enough rest before driving and always wearing safety belts.