Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for those aged 5 to 34 in the United States, claiming 18,266 lives per year. Nearly all of those deaths are preventable, and a disturbing number can be traced to deadly auto defects, which sometimes go unaddressed for too long, even when automakers are aware of the problem.
By one measure, the situation is improving: Motor vehicle deaths have been declining steadily since the 1980s, due in part to advances in auto safety technology. However, 2014 was a record year for auto recalls, with more than 60 million defective vehicles recalled, affecting 20 percent of all cars on the road. The auto industry recalled more models made five or more years ago than ever before, an indication that defects had gone undetected or ignored for years.
Design and manufacturing defects can kill. General Motors recalled 2.2 million cars in the U.S. last year over a defective ignition switch that could cause vehicles to shut off without warning, disabling the airbags. That defect has been linked to 42 fatalities. Honda and nine other automakers recalled more than 18 million vehicles over faulty Takata airbags, which could explode and fling shrapnel at the occupants of the vehicle.
While 2014 was a record year for recalls, these were not the most deadly defects ever. In 2000 and 2001, Ford recalled about 13 million vehicles due to defective Firestone tires, which were linked to 271 fatalities. In 2013, Chrysler recalled 1.6 million cars over a problem that could result in the fuel tank exploding. Regulators linked that defect to 51 deaths.
Last year also saw more recalls for brakes and airbags than ever before. More than 19 million vehicles were recalled for electric problems, and more than 20 million cars had airbag problems. Some recalls were based on multiple issues.