Automakers to drivers: Get that car fixed!

Over the last several years, federal regulators have swatted automakers as diverse as General Motors, Toyota, Honda and BMW with hefty fines for failing to act quickly after discovering safety defects. But experts warn that consumers also shoulder some of the blame, and say owners may need to face sanctions should they fail to make needed recall repairs.

Honda this week announced plans for a national ad campaign aimed at convincing owners of millions of vehicles equipped with potentially defective airbags to bring them in for repairs. Last year, GM offered incentives such as free oil changes to improve the response rate after recalling 2.6 million vehicles equipped with faulty ignition switches.

A Honda dealership as Honda recently announced more recalls.
Steve Russell | The Toronto Star | Getty Images
A Honda dealership as Honda recently announced more recalls.

Both problems have been linked to a number of fatalities and serious injuries, yet millions of Honda and GM owners have yet to respond, whether to their original recall notices or to news headlines.

That's not unusual. According to CarFax, a vehicle data tracking service, there are tens of millions of cars, trucks and crossovers on American highways with at least one recall-related defect that hasn't been fixed.

Read MoreGM cuts some powertrain warranties

"The response rate is too low," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Automotive safety. "These are deadly defects. There needs to be action or people will die."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sets strict rules requiring an automaker to quickly notify regulators when a vehicle defect is discovered. The agency then presses manufacturers to take every step possible to notify owners, encouraging them to come to dealers for free repairs.

Yet a 2011 audit by the General Accounting Office of NHTSA recalls found less than 70 percent of vehicles were eventually repaired. The response rate varied widely, depending on the type of defect—with a low of about 45 percent for vehicle speed control systems, such as cruise control, to around 80 percent for recalls involving defective wheels or tires.

Why the low response rate?

Why the low response rate, especially when repairs would be made at no charge to the owner? Some GM and Honda owners claim they have tried to schedule a dealer appointment, only to find out the necessary replacement parts weren't available. But owners of nearly 40 percent, or 1 million, of the vehicles covered by the GM ignition switch recall had not even checked in with a dealer six months after the service action was first announced in February 2014.

More from The Detroit Bureau:
Is your auto job about to be automated out of existence?
The 10 most collectible cars of 2015
Automakers struggle to address privacy in era of high-tech cars

There has been a slow ramp-up of production for replacement airbags, but Honda says it was forced to take drastic measures because it has so far only fixed 1.1 million of the 8 million defective airbag systems targeted in the U.S.

The Japanese maker also noted it has not been able to locate 17,809 owners. That's a particularly serious problem when dealing with the recall of older vehicles. GM initially said its spring 2014 ignition switch service action covered 2.6 million products. It later reduced that number to reflect vehicles that had been scrapped. But it also admitted it couldn't find tens of thousands of owners.

"It's a smart move," Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator and ongoing auto safety critic, says of Honda's new recall ad campaign. "It's what companies should do. I wish more would do that."

But while frequently critical of the auto industry's safety record, Claybrook also says consumers need to be held responsible.

Last summer, CarFax estimated 36 million unrepaired vehicles were still being driven, a figure it said was growing rapidly. Last year's total of 64 million vehicles targeted by recalls was about twice the previous high set in 2004. Even if a relatively high 70 percent of owners took action during what some call "the year of the recall," perhaps 19 million more vehicles are now rolling around with potentially deadly defects.

Legislation introduced

"People have a responsibility for getting their cars fixed," contends Claybrook.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced legislation that would force states to notify owners about recalls and, in turn, require motorists to complete repairs, in most cases, before the vehicles could be registered. Even a shortage of replacement parts would qualify for just a 60-day delay.

Read MoreIt's not just the minivan—Best cars for families

There has been some opposition, but the proposal also has created some unusual allies, including the Center for Auto Safety, the Consumer Federation of America and Honda Motor Co. Honda's North American Executive Vice President Rick Schostek says, "We believe the process of vehicle registration is a logical point to require an additional check for any open safety recalls in order to ensure that repairs are completed."

Automakers have been forced to tighten up on safety after some embarrassing, and sometimes deadly, lapses in recent years. But industry experts say that unless consumers make sure their cars are repaired, when needed, there will continue to be far too many unjustified crashes, injuries and deaths.