ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
More than 60 million cars, trucks and SUVs have been recalled this year. That is nearly twice the previous record for the auto industry. And it translates to nearly one out of every four cars on the road recalled for a safety-related defect. As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, those recalls have rippled through the entire car industry.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When it comes to recalls, none of the major carmakers were spared.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MARY BARRA: To everyone who has been affected, especially the families and friends who lost their lives, I am deeply sorry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SHIGEHESA TAKADA: We are deeply sorry about each of the reported instances.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
PREET BHARARA: Today, one of the largest carmakers in the world stands charged with criminal offense. Toyota Motor Corporation is in that position because it cared more about savings than safety, because it can more about its own brand and bottom line than the truth.
GLINTON: That's the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara announcing a $1.2 billion fine against Toyota for its unintended acceleration. Before him were the heads of General Motors and airbag maker Takata apologizing for the tens of millions of recalled vehicles their companies were responsible for.
JAKE FISHER: I'm personally wondering what vehicles weren't recalled this year.
GLINTON: Jake Fisher is head of the auto testing lab at Consumer Reports.
FISHER: You have some many recalls, it really erodes confidence to normal consumers, and you had to try to figure out what does this mean? Why are there so many recalls?
GLINTON: Fisher says it doesn't mean that cars are less safe because there were way more recalls this year. It's actually the opposite.
FISHER: We have reliability data going back many years, and actually, today's cars are safer than they ever have been. What this means is there's more scrutiny in these vehicles. And if there are problems, they're trying to attack them with a lot more attention than they ever have before.
GLINTON: Consumer confidence may have been eroded in part because the recalls of this year were pretty dramatic. The GM problem was with its ignition switch. If you just bumped the keys with your knee, you could shut the car off. And then Takata - some of their airbags can explode with too much force, sending shrapnel flying at car occupants. Larry Dominique used to be an engineer in Nissan. Now he's with truecar.com. He says part of what we've seen - growing pains after decades of consolidation...
LARRY DOMINIQUE: ...On the supplier side of the industry and also on the manufacturers using a single supplier for a large number of parts or at least a part for a large number of vehicles. So now what happens if you do end up with a defect of some sort, the multiplier effect is much, much greater.
GLINTON: Because there are fewer suppliers, one bad part could affect the entire industry. And that one bad part could send millions of car owners running to a car dealer like Bill Fox.
BILL FOX: It's a burden. It's a real burden. I mean, anytime somebody doubles your workload, it creates problems.
GLINTON: Fox runs a group of dealerships in upstate New York. He's also the incoming chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
FOX: It makes me wonder if all recalls are created equal. And the fact is many of these recalls are being branded safety recalls, when, in my eyes, they may not be.
GLINTON: Fox says he thinks a lot of the recalls were made with an overabundance of caution, which makes him worry whether or not customers will actually get their cars fixed. Sean Kane is a safety advocate and researcher. He says all the recalls are the culmination of years of neglect by manufacturers and the agencies that regulate them.
SEAN KANE: I think what's really troubling is that, you know, it shows that our system of enforcement and the manufacturer's ability to deal with these problems on their own has been pretty poor.
GLINTON: A glaring example, Kane says, is the way to tell customers about recalls. You get a notice in the mail.
KANE: We don't have regulations to address the complex electronic systems in today's vehicles. And on the flipside of that, these increased recalls - we're not dealing with in a 21st-century first century way. We're still dealing with them by post office, and that doesn't make a lot of sense.
GLINTON: Kane says we have a indicator light to tell us when your oil needs changing. Why not mandate one for when your car needs a recall? Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.