Do Safety Recalls Hurt Car Brands?

February 10, 2014

It’s starting to feel like safety recalls on cars are becoming a regular thing. This feels especially true in light of this week’s Aston Martin recall that’s currently affecting 17,590 cars. Looking back through the last 30 years of auto-making, the number of large-scale auto safety recalls is relatively small. The 1970’s saw a particularly high number of safety recalls and there was a small spike again in the 90’s, but overall car manufacturers have been pretty consistently delivering quality products. With that said, does a large safety recall from an auto-maker shake your faith in their brand? Should it?

How serious is a Vehicle Safety Recall?

You might be surprised, but not all recalls are serious. Some recalls are issued to fix some minor component that might have slipped through the manufacturer’s quality control. Sometimes they have to make a small adjustment to meet a country’s safety standards (we once had to have a new safety sticker installed on the underside of the passenger side sun visor because a word was mistranslated). Some recalls, such as the current Aston Martin recall, are related to manufacturer construction standards. There’s no established safety issue, but Aston Martin learned that one of its sub-contractors used an inferior product in making a part and the recall went into effect to remedy that and keep the brand’s integrity intact.

Of course, it can go the other way, too. If you remember Toyota’s infamous and far reaching recall in 2010 where just under seven million vehicles were affected, that recall went into effect due to reports of unintended acceleration—a major safety concern. So it depends on the individual recall as to how severe it is and how broadly the problem affects a brand’s vehicles.

Should I Avoid Vehicles that have had Recent Safety Recalls?

The short answer is “no”. A safety recall isn’t an indication that a manufacturer is “no good” at its job or is making “bad” cars. Keep in mind that auto manufacturing is a massive, detail-oriented, painstaking process that takes place over several continents and often several months. Slip ups happen, even though a company may have a number of fail-safes in place to prevent them.

If vehicle reliability and safety are your primary concerns, there are plenty of websites out there that monitor reviews from drivers and keep a record of vehicle reliability. Edmunds.com and Cars.com are great examples. When it comes to choosing a reliable vehicle, these reviews are a much more reliable means of determining whether you’ll be happy with a certain brand of vehicle.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to recalls, or a brand’s history of safety issues. This kind of scrutiny in the 90s is what led to some of the most innovative safety developments in generations. SUVs had become popular, but design flaws such as narrow wheel-bases and top-heavy models led to a high number of rollovers. In the mid-to-late 90s, buying a domestic SUV wasn’t necessarily the smartest buy for safety shoppers. It didn’t take long for all of the brands to implement fixes for these issues and that’s really what you want to see. A brand that acknowledges its mistakes and makes quick moves to correct them is a brand you can trust. In today’s auto market, there aren’t any real bad guys. Legislation and a public expectation of responsibility on the part of the manufacturer (combined with a highly competitive marketplace) have led to safer, more reliable vehicles. Safety recalls are simply what result when something slips through the cracks.

How a Safety Recall Affects Car Brands

Car manufacturers do feel the pain of having to issue a safety recall. A safety recall, especially one that affects a large number or wide variety of vehicles, is newsworthy. So when a recall is issued it often receives a lot of coverage from news outlets which isn’t exactly good publicity for the manufacturer. Of course, most news outlets will explain the severity of a recall and the reasons why it was issued. However, the mind of the consumer is trained to recognize a recall as a negative event, not a positive one (even though you can easily make a case for safety recalls being a positive and proactive response from any auto manufacturer). Over time the manufacturer or brand may overcome the temporary negative effects and all-in-all, it’s rare that the general public remembers a recall for any extended period of time—which limits how much damage there is to the manufacturer and the brand.

Don’t Be Caught Unaware: Keep Watch for Safety Recalls

Regardless of what car you own, it’s really important to keep your eyes open for safety recalls. They shouldn’t be taken lightly and since the cost of implementing a fix is usually covered by the manufacturer any reason to wait is eliminated. To stay up to date on current and future vehicle safety recalls, check the NHTSA website periodically or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.  They even have an app to alert you the moment a recall is announced.


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