“It’s the multiplier effect,” said Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, which helps companies manage recalls. “An issue with one subingredient or component can cause a recall that spans many companies and geographies because of the interconnected nature of supply chains.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has decades of experience in handling deadly product flaws, calls the continuing Takata airbag recall the most complex it has ever overseen. The scope is huge: 14 automakers and as many as one in every four of the 250 million vehicles on America’s roads are affected, the fix is tricky and the stakes are high. After prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, the defective airbags can explode, hurtling chunks of metal into the vehicle’s cabin. At least 13 deaths worldwide have been linked to the flaw.
Nearly 29 million Takata airbag inflaters have been recalled in the United States, and at least 35 million more are scheduled for recall, but manufacturers don’t have the parts to replace all of them yet. The help offered by manufacturers varies widely from company to company. The letter Honda sent to many customers specifically mentions the possibility of a loaner car, suggesting that owners talk to their dealers about “the provision of, or reimbursement for, temporary alternative transportation.”
Bill Vines, who has a 2011 Honda CR-V, received a recall notice in March and contacted his dealer in Rutland, Vt., a week later. He is now driving a Ford Fusion from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, arranged and paid for by Honda and the dealer, while his own car sits in the parking lot of the inn he owns.
“I clearly would prefer to be driving my Honda, but when you get a letter saying, ‘Your car could kill you and the passengers you’re driving,’ you pay attention,” he said.
Other automakers have taken different tacks. Robert Osborn, a BMW owner in Santa Rosa, Calif., received a letter in March saying that his convertible was being recalled but that parts were not yet available for a fix.
Mr. Osborn contacted his local BMW service center, as the letter suggested, but he was turned down when he asked for a substitute car to drive until his was fixed. Without another transportation option, he nervously, and reluctantly, continues to drive the BMW.
“I live near the ocean; it’s humid here. I don’t know if they’ve figured out: This much time plus this much moisture equals exploding airbag,” Mr. Osborn said. “The letter I got is not very comforting. It offers scary possibilities, but no concrete details about ‘Here’s what to do, or not do, in the meantime.’”
Rebecca Kiehne, a spokeswoman for BMW of North America, declined to provide specifics on the company’s policy on loaner cars.
“We have authorized our service centers to provide adequate customer assistance. If support is required, we will do our best to provide that support,” she said. “Parts are not rapidly available. We’re trying to address it as quickly as we can.”
Many recalls, including some of the largest, had minimal customer impact. The record for sheer unit numbers was a 2004 recall of toy jewelry imported from India and sold for 75 cents or less apiece in vending machines nationwide. Some of the jewelry contained lead, prompting a recall of 150 million pieces, but not a single instance of harm or sickness was reported, said Patty Davis, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Over all, products of all kinds have been getting safer, consumer protection experts said. Vehicle deaths are down to a record-low rate of roughly one death per 100 million car miles traveled. Last year, the fewest children’s products were recalled in at least 15 years, according to Kids in Danger, an advocacy group that cited “sustained, faithful implementation” of a 2008 law tightening product safety rules as the main reason for the long-term decline.
Still, with new recall notices rolling out daily, regulators are pressing companies to do a better job of identifying problems and alerting customers. A patchwork of federal and state agencies coordinates recalls, and the most centralized notification site, Recalls.gov, is an incomplete guide, officials acknowledge.
That puts the onus on manufacturers to be aggressive and creative in reaching their customers. With more traceable purchases, like automobiles and prescription medications, companies will typically use letters, emails, phone calls and sometimes even text messages to spur people into action.
“It almost looks like a marketing campaign,” said Mr. Pollack of Stericycle. “We may contact an owner 10 to 20 times to get them to bring an item in.”
For the Takata recall, in particular, the highway safety administration says it is serious about its goal of a 100 percent repair rate — even though the phased-repair approach means some defective cars and trucks won’t be recalled until late 2019. Honda, the manufacturer with the largest number of affected vehicles, is trying novel ways to get owners’ attention, even hiring private investigators and matching the email addresses linked to specific vehicle identification numbers with people’s Facebook accounts to send them personalized recall messages.
But for car owners like Mr. Osborn, automakers’ outreach efforts are a cold comfort until parts for fixes are available.
“I’ve had my airbag deployed before; a few years ago, I was in an accident,” he said. “The risk crosses my mind every time I get in the car.”
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