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The Globe and Mail

Car makers find 'safety in numbers' with recalls

Some years, auto makers recall almost no defective vehicles.

And then there's 2010. General Motors Corp. said yesterday that it's recalling 1.3 million compact cars due to power-steering problems, marking the eighth major emergency fix announced somewhere in the world this year involving a total of nearly 10 million vehicles.

And it's only March.

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It turns out that the safety problems plaguing Toyota Motor Corp. are both a blessing and a curse for the auto industry.

With Toyota taking most of the flak right now, other auto makers may have an incentive to come clean on any problems they may have.

There's "safety in numbers," agreed Peter Cohan, a management consultant and lecturer at Babson College.

"They are better admitting them pre-emptively, and using all the bad news about Toyota as something of an umbrella for consumer anger," he said.

And because no car maker wants to become the next Toyota, companies are under extreme pressure to get out ahead of safety issues.

"There seems to be a greater likelihood that we're seeing more of these things as manufacturers become more gun-shy," said Chris Travell, vice-president of automotive at consulting firm Maritz Canada Inc.

"In the short term, there might be an overreaction," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Mr. Cole said the complexity of newer vehicles, with their increasing reliance on computer software, makes problems tougher for manufacturers and regulators to pinpoint.

"It's been very difficult to get the facts in the Toyota case," he said.

Toyota's much-publicized woes - including sudden acceleration and breaking problems - have prompted consumer advocates and lawmakers to push for tighter safety regulation, particularly in the United States. And that could stifle the ability of car makers to roll out new models.

At a U.S. Senate hearing yesterday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and top officials of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) were pushed to do a much better job for consumers.

"Six times investigations were opened [into complaints about Toyotas] six times closed without action. Thirty-four people died," Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar complained at a Senate commerce committee hearing. "I think we can do better."

Senator Byron Dorgan, also a Democrat, pointed out that NHTSA has an annual budget of $145-million (U.S.) to do its job, roughly one-sixth of what the U.S. embassy in Iraq spends every year on security.

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"The security for one embassy in one country exceeds by multiples the amount of money we spend in NHTSA," he told the hearing.

Ms. Klobuchar told the Senate that NHTSA's staff has shrunk over the past three decades even as the number of cars on the road has soared.

In 1980, NHTSA had 119 employees involved in enforcement. Today, there are 57. NHTSA is seeking to add as many 66 employees next year.

The number of vehicles on the road has grown to 256 million from 146 million in 1980.

Ms. Klobuchar also complained that while voluntary recalls are easy, regulators must "go through hoops" to order a recall, including public hearings, investigations, consultations with car makers and sometimes court proceedings.

"It goes on and on," she said. Jay Rockefeller, the commerce committee chairman, vowed to pursue "comprehensive legislation" to improve NHTSA's work.

The latest recall by GM involves 2005-06 Pontiac Pursuits, 2007-10 Pontiac G5s and 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalts.

The problem tends to develop after the car's warranties expire, pointed out GM vice-president of quality Jamie Hresko.

"While greater steering effort under 15 miles per hour may be required, these vehicles are safe to drive because the customer can still steer the vehicle," Mr. Hresko said. "When the condition occurs, both a chime will sound and a 'Power Steering' message will be displayed."

The NHTSA opened an investigation Jan. 27 after receiving more than 1,100 complaints of power-steering problems, 14 crashes and one injury.

The GM cars join an array of Toyota's most popular cars as well as Honda, Nissan and Peugeot vehicles to be recalled so far this year.

With files from reporter Greg Keenan

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