GM’s problem sparks debate over recall system image

General Motors called back the 2.6 million older cars equipped with defective ignition switches since February, but so far the vast majority of owners are still waiting for their respective visit to the dealer.

Many detractors and commentators say that GM’s ongoing problem clearly illustrates how the NHTSA uses a recall system that actually fails in its main goal – fixing the safety issues quickly.

“Right now, there are almost 36 million cars on the road that have an unfixed recall. About 10% of those were for sale online just last year alone,” says Carfax spokesman Christopher Basso.

Carfax, which researches used car sales says its data shows that today at least 3.5 million cars are listed for sale online but have pending safety recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of recalls, is, next to GM, pending scrutiny from Congress and safety advocates for not calling the US automaker to issue the recall years earlier.

“We know NHTSA did not identify the problem, but we don’t fully know why,” said Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Right now, it is still too early to tell if and what changes need to be made.”

The current system calls for a shared responsibility from the NHTSA and automakers – with the latter supposed to notify the public and initiate voluntary recalls on safety issues. The agency itself can research on its own crashes and other data to issue a mandatory recall. The system failed in GM’s case, with both separately unable to identify the problem faster.