As auto recalls rise, government cracks down

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Recalls have long been a way of life for automakers and buyers alike. But federal regulators have announced a critical new step to ensure that when a vehicle is subject to a safety order the necessary repairs actually get made.

Issued on Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the new rules should prove a boon to owners and car shoppers alike as they make it easier to see if a vehicle has been subject to a recall and whether the problem was fixed. The government also will provide a searchable database.

"Safety is our highest priority, and an informed consumer is one of our strongest allies in that effort," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Owners and potential buyers alike will soon be able to identify whether a safety recall for their specific vehicle is incomplete, using our free online search at"

It's one of the rare instances where industry, consumer advocates and regulators are in agreement, and it comes at a time when recalls appear to be on the rise again after years of steady declines.

"The goal here is to increase recall completion rates through greater consumer awareness," said the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, noting that the industry supports the plan for providing safety recall information on automakers' websites.

Under the new rule, all manufacturers will have to set up easy-to-access Web pages where people can enter a car, truck or crossover's Vehicle Identification Number to check its recall history. The rule also covers motorcycle manufacturers. NHTSA will require companies to update the information at least once a week.

(Read more: Half of US cars score badly on tougher US crash tests)

A study of the NHTSA database for 2012 found 16.2 million vehicles (including motorcycles and recreational vehicles) covered by safety campaigns, up 4.5% from 2011.

Many safety experts have warned that the initial pace suggests the industry could see another increase in 2013, especially in light of some of the year's biggest recalls, which have generated numbers as high as the millions. That includes roughly 1.5 million Jeep products recalled in June because of a fire-safety issue, and a problem affecting 250,000 General Motors SUVs announced that month.

Fire hazards have been a particularly big concern in the past year. Toyota announced a recall covering 7.5 million vehicles last fall because of faulty power window switches that could short out and catch fire.

But defective airbags have also become a major problem, involving millions of vehicles since the beginning of 2012 alone, affecting makers including Honda, BMW and Nissan.

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Part of the problem is that, as automakers share an increasing number of components in a bid to reduce costs and complexity, a defect can affect a wide range of models and brands while often slipping under consumers' radar.

(Read more: Toyota recalls over 340,000 compact Tacoma pickups)

NHTSA also orders a number of recalls each year for only a handful of vehicles that might have been produced on a specific day. Chevrolet recently issued a service order for just four Volt plug-in hybrids because of a software glitch in their electronic stability control.

Complicating matters, some vehicles are subject to multiple recalls, which makes it even harder for the public to stay on top of safety matters. Last month Honda recalled some Fit models because an earlier repair had failed to address a fire hazard.

The administration notes that only about 70% of the vehicles covered by the typical recall are repaired, including those vulnerable to the most serious safety problems. Even when makers repeatedly notify owners directly—as Toyota did after a series of issues related to unintended acceleration in 2010 and 2011—the figure seldom climbs above 80%.

Older vehicles have been scrapped in some cases, but many unrepaired autos remain on the road, a risk to current owners as well as to those who might buy the cars on the used market.

Automakers will be given a year to comply with the new NHTSA guidelines. The Web databases will only be required to show vehicles that have not had repairs; those that have been fixed won't need to be listed.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at