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Start of 2014 marked by a blizzard of large-scale auto recalls

Published: Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 - 2:35 pm

This is shaping up as the year of the motor vehicle recall, and the blizzard of problems that cropped up in just the first quarter of 2014 is prompting nervousness among even veteran California motorists.

“Recalls never bothered me that much. I’ve been driving in California for 40 years, but it seems like these recalls are coming faster and faster,” said Sacramento retiree Alex Johnson, helping his daughter shop for a new car at the Roseville Automall. “I’m glad they’re trying to fix them, but it makes me wonder if something is wrong in the whole building and inspection process … You don’t want to buy a dangerous car, and you really worry when a family member is involved.”

So far in 2014, there have been more than 17 million motor vehicle recalls internationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other sources. In all of 2013, there were about 22 million. This year, about 9 million vehicles have been designated for recall in the United States. The U.S. record is about 30.8 million set in 2004.

Significantly, this year’s biggest recall numbers are being rolled up by the world’s top automakers – General Motors and Toyota.

GM’s recalls have garnered the most attention and created the most concern for car owners. Its recalled cars have been linked to multiple deaths, and the company is facing allegations that it knew of the problems for years but did not fix them or tell car owners of the potential danger.

The Detroit-based automaker’s 2014 recall tally zoomed past the 6.5 million mark on April 1, with its announcement that it was expanding an ignition-switch recall to add ignition-lock cylinders to its safety recall of some 2.2 million cars in the United States. The combined concerns involve ignition switches that might unintentionally move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” position, with a corresponding reduction or loss of power. Also, faulty ignition-lock cylinders could ignition keys to fall out while the car is moving.

GM has linked 13 deaths to the flaw, though families of some who died in crashes involving the recalled cars believe there may be more.

Amid this, newly named GM CEO Mary Barra was grilled by a U.S. congressional subcommittee – with particular emphasis on the company’s failure to fix a known problem for more than 10 years. GM has dismissed two engineers and has projected taking a $1.3 billion hit in recall costs.

Meanwhile, the company has been maneuvering on the legal front.

Just last week, GM dodged a proposed court ruling that effectively would have forced all cars named in the ignition recall off the road until they were repaired and added millions to the recall bill. GM also has sought to protect itself from some lawsuits by arguing in various courts that the “new” company, created by a 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, is not liable for the actions of the “old” GM.

Toyota also made headlines this month with an announcement that it will recall 6.4 million vehicles globally – nearly 1.8 million of them in the U.S. – to fix various problems, including air bags that might not inflate. The announcement came several weeks after Toyota was hit with a record $1.2 billion fine from the Justice Department related to company efforts to cover up vehicle flaws in an earlier recall. Those flaws led to unintentional acceleration that resulted in several deaths.

Beyond the huge potential costs of lawsuits and fines from high-profile recalls, the logistics involved in recalling millions of cars is akin to launching an overseas military invasion, and the ripple effect eventually makes its way to thousands of auto dealerships and millions of motorists’ driveways.

In GM’s case, a national call center dealing specifically with the ignition issues has been set up at (800) 222-1020, and a website has been established – At that site, visitors can get information on all cars in the recall, plus tips on how to deal with your vehicle’s ignition if you are concerned about problems. The website also posts expected wait times when contacting the call center.

Californians are likely to be among the largest users of the GM contact portals. The automaker says nearly 150,000 vehicles registered in the Golden State are part of the GM ignition recall.

Last week, GM sent a first wave of letters to vehicle owners who might have received a bad replacement part. The letters include instructions on how to get a free repair or obtain reimbursement for previous service. This is just one of tens of thousands of postal mailings.

But all this is just a small part of what will be a very lengthy process.

GM spokesman Jim Cain explained that since the questionable ignition assemblies are on former vehicle models, production of replacements has to be restarted at a Delphi Automotive plant in Mexico. Some replacement switches have been produced, but it is a limited number in the scheme of things. Cain said the goal is to have a million switches produced by the end of August. Realistically speaking, Cain said, the ignition recall process will not be humming along at top speed until late summer or early fall.

“It’s a process that does take some time,” Cain said. “GM is fully committed to getting replacement parts to dealers as quickly as possible,” said Alan Adler, another GM spokesman.

Cain said that in an effort to reach every owner of a recalled vehicle, “multiple mailings and reminders could go on for up to two years.” While there are no hard statistics on how many U.S. motorists typically ignore vehicle recall notices, Cain said that “our goal is to repair 85 percent of all recalls,” which is in line with historic percentages reached in past recalls.

At the dealership level, David Rodgers, senior vice president and general manager of the John L. Sullivan Automotive Group, which includes John L. Sullivan Chevrolet and Roseville Toyota in the Roseville Automall, said “the biggest challenge is the suppliers and the amount of time it takes to make that many components or devices in a limited period of time … So, a lot of it comes down to supply and demand.”

Rodgers said recalled vehicles can be tracked through vehicle identification numbers, which ultimately tell automakers how many recalled vehicles are in a given geographic area. Even so, Rodgers said consumers have concerns: “They may or may not want to drive their (recalled) car. They may or may not have the ability to get a rental car … So, yeah, things can get intense.”

Santa Monica-based car shopping site recommends that consumers take recall notices seriously, and urges car owners who have received a notice to contact dealers to schedule a fix as soon as possible.

“Recalls do not make life easier for dealers who need to implement the fixes, nor do they make it easier for car shoppers who need to weigh one more consideration when they buy,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds. “But it’s always better to err on the side of caution, and given the sensitivity around auto safety in the last five years, it should be no surprise that we see as many recalls as we do today.”

Call The Bee’s Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

Read more articles by Mark Glover

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