Increase in auto recalls doesn’t worry officials

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The recall scandals deviling Mitsubishi Motors Corp. may have been grabbing headlines recently, but slipping under the radar unnoticed is the fact that the overall number of recalled vehicles in Japan is on the increase.

Industry and government officials, however, claim the trend does not mean cars are becoming more dangerous.

The number of vehicles involved in recalls in the 12 months to March hit an all-time high of 4.42 million, exceeding the 4 million mark for the first time since the recall system was introduced in 1969, according to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry. The recalls included trucks, buses, motorcycles and imported cars.

The number includes 1.03 million units announced by Nissan Motor Co. and 724,000 by Toyota Motor Corp.

The tally fluctuates every year, but generally the annual total has been on the rise; it topped 3 million for the first time in fiscal 2001.

The auto industry attributes the uptrend to — ironically — technological advancement.

“Since a motor vehicle is a product that requires highly developed technology, it is impossible to eliminate structural flaws 100 percent,” said Mamoru Hoshino, an official at the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Also, because automakers want to cut costs by using parts that can be used in a wide range of models, one defective part could affect numerous models, Hoshino added.

But auto industry analyst Kazuhiko Mitsumoto is critical of the makers, saying, “Automakers have come to place more emphasis on cost reduction, rather than on safety.”

For instance, the companies now rely on computer simulation in the design process and conduct fewer physical experiments than in the past. This makes it difficult to find defects that could be discovered if experimental cars were subjected to more trial and error tests, Mitsumoto explained.

Transport ministry officials, however, don’t appear concerned.

“Of course it is preferable to see the recall number fall,” Vice Minister Noriyuki Kazaoka said. But he said he is not worried because the purpose of the recall system is to have automakers announce, collect and repair defective cars before they cause accidents.

Meanwhile, dealerships, where recalled vehicles are repaired on behalf of the makers, sometimes face angry customers.

“If a car is recalled, its image among users will be damaged,” a mechanic at a Tokyo dealership said. “So we try hard to maintain customers’ trust by showing we are working seriously.”