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Consumer Reports | product review

Pressure, publicity have led to greater expectation of safer vehicles

Associated Press/File

If you’re still reeling from the record number of car recalls last year and wondering what it all means, you’re not alone. In 2014 about 62 million US vehicles were recalled; that’s the equivalent of about four years’ worth of cars sold here, or about one out of every four cars on the road today.

And there could be even more recalls in 2015 as federal regulators make it a priority to root out design defects. Some of the largest recalls, including those involving Takata’s air bags and 1.5 million older Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty sport-utility vehicles for fuel-tank punctures, were demanded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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“If the system is working better to pick up [defects] and we’re catching them sooner and more easily,’’ said Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “we might actually see an increase.”

Have carmakers been asleep at the drawing board or on the assembly line? And will the recalls result in better practices and safer cars? The answer to both questions is yes. Several big manufacturers have made defective vehicles in the past and in some cases tried to cover it up. But the resulting publicity has turned a harsh spotlight on the problem and created an expectation of safer vehicles.

Recall notices require action. Consumers need to do their part by participating fully in recalls. If you get a notice, Consumer Reports recommends that you take it seriously. Too many car owners don’t respond to them, so the free safety fix is never done. A 2012 federal study found that 21 to 25 percent of the problems covered by recall notices between 2006 and 2010 remained unrepaired. Carfax, which tracks used-car vehicle histories, calculated that more than 36 million cars now on the road have uncompleted recall work.

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In some cases, owners don’t know there’s a problem because they bought their cars used and the previous owners didn’t get the work done. Other times, automakers lose track of who owns the car because it has been sold and resold a few times. But a lot of people simply disregard the recall letter, especially if their cars don’t show signs of the problem described. That’s a mistake.

“You’ve got to pay attention to all [recalls],” Rosekind says. “A recall means it’s a safety issue. But we’re looking at increasing our communications to help people understand them more clearly. We want them to be safe, but they’ve got to take action as well.”

Track down recalls. It’s easy to find out whether your car has an unresolved recall repair. With your vehicle identification number (VIN) in hand, go to your automaker’s website or to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s site at safercar.gov, punch in the number, and see whether recall work is pending. Or call any franchised dealer for your brand. More information is at ConsumerReports.org/carrecalls.

Report a problem. If you notice that something seems wrong with your vehicle, say something. Get involved. If your car develops a problem you think could put you or someone else in danger, such as a fuel leak or a serious steering or braking defect that’s not related to wear and tear, report it to the automaker’s customer-service department and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s safety hot line. Automakers and the government depend on consumer complaints to find out about safety concerns and do something about them. If no one reports a problem, it’s as if it never existed.

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