From all the vehicle safety recalls that get reported on the nightly news, you might think that cars and trucks are becoming more dangerous.
The number of recalls has risen in each decade since the first federal auto safety law was enacted in 1966.
The population of cars and light trucks recalled in a given year now routinely tops the number of new vehicles sold, despite evidence that vehicles are safer and of better quality than ever.
This is a good thing. It is a sign of an automobile marketplace that is working.
Lee Iacocca once cracked that “safety doesn’t sell,” but since the 1960s and 1970s, when consumer groups shed light on safety problems with such cars as the Chevrolet Corvair and Ford Pinto, the auto industry has abandoned that attitude.
Automakers and suppliers now use better manufacturing and quality assurance techniques. They have learned through hard experience that any real or perceived defect can spiral out of control into a PR disaster and do huge harm to a company’s bottom line.
Further raising the stakes, new laws allow regulators to keep a closer eye on the automotive market, and consumers have been empowered by the Internet.
The end result is a business culture in which car companies believe that what is good for the consumer is good for business. They will usually issue a recall without hesitation. The safety wars of the 1960s and 1970s are very much over.
It has not been an easy shift or one without its frustrations.
Sometimes regulators demand too much.
Sometimes the media or interest groups overstate a safety risk and scare the public, forcing automakers to resort to overkill.
And because light vehicles will never be perfect and a recall can be devastatingly expensive, there will always be conflicts.
That much was clear from this year’s tension between Chrysler Group and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over older Jeep vehicles that regulators deemed prone to fires in high-energy crashes.
All in all, however, the industry is in a far better place.
The lesson of the safety wars is this: Even if doing so creates headaches and costs money in the short run, businesses that look after their customers and deal honestly with them will prosper.