US regulators struggle to disseminate the news while owners face hurdles getting their cars repaired
Bumpy ride for car recalls American carmaker Chrysler is among the companies affected by the recall of 7.8 million vehicles in connection with faulty alternators. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is the worst year for car recalls in United States history, with more than one in five cars and trucks at risk of sometimes critical, deadly defects. But the disjointed recall system patched together by carmakers and regulators is leaving millions of broken vehicles still on the road.

Federal regulators this week urged the owners of 7.8 million Hondas, Toyotas, BMWs and other vehicles to "take immediate action" on a recall for malfunctioning airbags that blast out metal shards. The defect, tied to Japanese car- parts manufacturer Takata, has been linked to at least two deaths and dozens of injuries.

Those faulty cars and trucks have joined 50 million others recalled nationwide so far this year, more than three times the number of vehicles sold across the country last year.

But car companies say there is a short supply of parts needed to fix those defects and safety regulators cannot even agree on how many vehicles have the dangerous flaws.

After landmark cases against General Motors and Toyota, carmakers are running scared and some are sounding the alarm over problems that may have once gone ignored.

Safety advocates said that is all laying bare the fundamental weaknesses of the broken recall system: neglected warnings, crucial delays and confusing messages.

Mr John Kauffman Jr, 34, said he was driving on the interstate near Hagerstown, Maryland, at dusk on Saturday when his 2011 Chrysler 300 lost all power and began filling up with smoke. To stop, he had to wrestle the car across several lanes of heavy traffic, all while struggling to breathe.

On Monday, having read about a Chrysler recall connected to faulty alternators, he called the dealership, which told him to tow his car in. But after replacing the part, dealer technicians told him the recall was not yet official and that he would have to pay the full US$1,041 (S$1,324) for the repair.

Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said that while the company had announced the recall of 470,000 cars and sportutility vehicles, it had not been officially launched and Chrysler would not begin notifying drivers until next month.

Mr Mayne declined to speak directly about Mr Kauffman's case but said the company would reimburse owners who paid for repairs later blamed on a recall.

"If they know there's a possibility a car can shut down on the interstate, what are they waiting for? A fatality?" Mr Kauffman said.

Why are so many recalls happening now? Advocates say the car industry was spooked in March when federal prosecutors announced a US$1.2-billion fine against Toyota, the largest criminal penalty for a carmaker in the US, over missteps in Toyota's recall of 10 million cars.

That has come alongside the even bigger recall of General Motors. It waited years to order recalls of millions of cars with faulty ignition switches, which in slipping out of place could disable airbags and cause the cars to stall.

But launching the recall is just the start. Drivers often find a whole series of hurdles that can block them from getting their car's defects fixed. Nearly one-third of recall notices mailed to vehicle owners are ignored, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and carmakers have been criticised for obscuring how severe the problems can be.

Those defective cars can then spread widely to used car lots and the driveways of unsuspecting buyers. About 3.5 million recalled cars and trucks were listed for sale last year, according to Carfax.

"We're living in what we're now referring to as the year of the automotive recall and, unfortunately, the population of drivers may become numb to that," said Mr Mike Rozembajgier, a vicepresident of Stericycle, a recall consultant and service firm for carmakers.

When buyers do respond, they may find the dealers do not have parts ready for repairs. Honda said it lacks the parts to promptly fix its more than five million Accords, Civics, Odysseys and other cars it said were at risk of lethal airbags.

And the temporary fixes dealers might make before the needed parts come in can often seem woefully lacking, advocates said.

Regulators have also struggled with even the basic elements of a recall. The Takata recall list that safety regulators shared on Monday was drastically incomplete: The number of defective vehicles has grown by more than three million in the days since and some cars initially recalled were not defective after all.

Government websites with information on the recalls were down all of Tuesday, in the hours after news of the massive airbag recall had spread, and remained down on Wednesday morning.

Media reported on Wednesday that US justice officials are investigating Takata as the government stepped up warnings on the dangers of its faulty airbags.

The Wall Street Journal said federal prosecutors in New York are probing whether the Japanese car-parts manufacturer made misleading statements about the safety of its airbags to US regulators.

The report came as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the US car safety regulator, expanded its "urgent" warning to owners of cars with Takata airbags to take them to dealers to fix the problem. Vehicles are being recalled because of the risk an airbag could improperly inflate and rupture, potentially sending shrapnel into the car's occupants.

According to The New York Times, at least 139 injuries have been tied to Takata airbags, including 37 reported as exploding airbags. Those include three people killed in Takata-equipped Hondas, it said.

The safety administration said 7.8 million cars in the US from 10 carmakers are affected by Takata airbag recalls and at least 10 million have been recalled worldwide. Owners of the cars should "take immediate action" to address the airbag issue, it said.

The recalls have occurred as far back as 18 months ago and as recently as Monday. The reported probe comes as members of the US Congress have also begun to raise questions both about Takata and the safety administration's action on the problem.

The car safety regulator said the need for action was especially urgent for car owners in warmer climates. Investigators suspect that the airbags have a higher risk of rupturing in cars operated in areas with high humidity.

Carmakers affected by the recalls include Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. Affected models include the 2001-2007 Honda Accord, the 2002-2005 Toyota Corolla and the 2005-2007 Ford Mustang.