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Auto Recalls Could Hit Record Number This Year

With GM's string of recalls last week, the Detroit automaker has now recalled more than 11 million vehicles in the U.S. this year alone. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / EPA

With General Motors announcing another string of recalls last week, the Detroit automaker has recalled more than 11 million vehicles in the U.S. this year — half as many as recalled by the entire industry in 2013.

But GM isn't alone.

When you add in the safety-related actions announced by its competitors, the industry has recalled about 20 million vehicles domestically so far this year, and is on track to break the all-time recall record of nearly 31 million set a decade ago, according to data from the government safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

After hitting the previous record of about 31 million vehicles in 2004, the numbers declined for several years, according to NHTSA data. But they've been on the rise. Last year, the number of U.S. recalls reached about 22 million, according to NHTSA.

"There's a good chance of a new record" for recalls this year, said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety.

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Automotive analysts suggest that GM's well-publicized problems with a defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 fatalities, and the $1.2 billion fine Toyota agreed to pay in March to settle charges related to its own safety problems, mark a dramatic shift in the way the auto industry handles safety problems.

If anything, the federal government wants the pace of change to speed up, something it signaled with the record $35 million fine levied against GM on Friday as part of a deal the automaker accepted over recall delays for the faulty ignition switches. "Safety is our top priority, and today's announcement puts all manufacturers on notice that they will be held accountable if they fail to quickly report and address safety-related defects," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in announcing the fine.

In the past, automakers such as GM and Toyota might have found it cheaper to avoid dealing with modest safety problems. But where the mantra was once, "When in doubt, stonewall," Ditlow said the industry now goes by the guideline, "When in doubt, recall."

More caution

A number of industry officials have suggested that they are being much more cautious about the handling of safety problems that might, in years past, have been handled with a less aggressive Technical Service Bulletin, like the one GM originally issued in 2008 when it learned that some of its midsize models, like the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura, were experiencing issues that could lead to brake light failures.

These types of bulletins are sent out to dealer service departments as an advisory about known problems that don't rise to the recall level. Typically, owners aren't told about such issues but will find themselves getting repairs at no charge if they complain.

But things have changed.

In GM's case, industry observers suggest that the maker is doing a rapid clear-out of safety-related problems that it had hadn't yet decided to act upon. That's in line with what happened with Toyota after its problems with so-called unintended acceleration were first reported in 2009. The Japanese automaker also became far more aggressive about safety issues — a major reason why it has had the most vehicles of any manufacturer covered by recalls in the U.S. for five of the last six years.

"The entire industry is under the microscope," said David Sullivan, senior auto analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific. Carmakers "aren't going to sit on anything anymore," he said.