NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Automakers have been recalling vehicles in recent years at a pace race-car drivers would envy, fixing everything from potentially exploding airbags to engines that can cut out dangerously in the middle of heavy traffic.
What's going wrong, and how worried should consumers be?
"A recall means your car has a problem that can be dangerous," says Mark Rechtin of Consumer Reports, which recently analyzed the problem. "Automakers only elevate something to a recall when there's something inherently wrong with the way your [vehicle] operates."
Manufacturers recalled a record 63.7 million vehicles in America during 2014, or about one out of every four cars on the nation's roads. That not only blows away the previous record of 30 million recalls in 2004, but equals more than half of all recalls automakers ordered during the entire 1990s.
Experts say automakers are recalling huge numbers of cars less as a result of poor workmanship and more to avoid the bad publicity, massive government penalties and costly lawsuits that insufficient responses to problems can bring.
"High-profile recalls have detrimental impacts on automakers' sales in both the long and short term, so it behooves them to stay on top of [problems]," says Jeremy Acevedo of car-buying site Edmunds.com."
Rechtin says industry norms about when to issue recalls changed after Toyota agreed over the past two years to pay $2.8 billion to settle private and U.S. government claims over alleged sudden-acceleration problems with the Japanese automaker's cars.
The big payout stemmed in part from allegations that Toyota had dragged its feet before recalling more than 9 million vehicles amid claims that some models inexplicably accelerated on their own, causing accidents and deaths.