Answer Man: When did auto recalls begin?

News-DemocratApril 9, 2014 

When did automobile recalls start? I have owned 76 new and used cars in my lifetime, and I don't think I ever had one recalled. If I did, I ignored it because nothing seemed wrong. My father owned 35-plus before me (going back to the Marmon and Pierce-Arrow). The only reaction to something wrong in those days was to consider it a "lemon" -- and there were no lemon laws, either. You put up with it or sold it. -- R.J., of O'Fallon

Seems to me it was a good thing that in the early 1960s, the government and the public decided they weren't going to "put up with it" any longer.

By then, the number of people killed on the road had nearly doubled since 1925, and the number of vehicles was up 11-fold. And even though you may remember them as hulking behemoths with the aerodynamics of a Sherman tank, the number of people killed in crashes was growing at an alarming rate.

In 1960, the number was 36,399. Just four years later, it had climbed 25 percent to 45,645. The terrible wake produced the book "Unsafe at Any Speed" by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and "Accidental Death and Disability -- The Neglected Disease of Modern Society" by the National Academy of Sciences.

Finally in 1966, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings on the mounting death toll, which would top 50,000 that year. The result was the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which created such agencies as the National Highway Safety Agency and the National Traffic Safety Agency.

They gave rise in 1970 to the current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was given the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles that had safety-related defects or did not meet federal safety standards.

Since then, more than 390 million vehicles have been recalled, according to www.nhtsa.gov. In addition, 46 million tires, 66 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment and 42 million child safety seats have been targeted as well.

Now, if a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer is required to notify NHTSA as well as owners, dealers and distributors. The manufacturer then must fix the problem at no cost with NHTSA serving as the overseer.

Unfortunately, as we found out recently with GM, the process sometimes doesn't work as well as it should. Nevertheless, huge recalls have been going on since at least 1971, when the government forced an equally reluctant GM to recall 6.7 million vehicles because engine mounts were failing, resulting in unexpected rapid acceleration. Other infamous recalls involved the Ford Pinto gas-tank fires in 1978, the sales-killing Audi recalls from 1982-1987, the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare in 1976 and 1977 and the GM X-Cars of the early 80s.

And while some may grumble about government meddling, the proof may be in the numbers: In 1966 when Congress passed the act, there were 50,894 traffic deaths or 5.5 per million vehicle miles. In 2012, deaths had fallen to 34,080 or 1.4 per million miles -- even though the U.S. had 120 million more people.

In April 1981, my aunt won a million dollars in the Illinois lottery. There was a story on the front page of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on April 9. My mom cut the picture out of the front page but didn't keep the rest of the story, which jumped to an inside page. Is there anyway we can get a copy of that paper or story? -- Sandy Harris, of Collinsville

It may not make you financially richer, but hopefully this answer still will be worth a million bucks to you: Just visit the St. Louis Central Library at 1301 Olive St.

There, you not only can make a copy of the story from the library's complete Globe-Democrat collection on microfilm, but you also could take your first look at the library's grand, two-year renovation.

It's open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10-6 on Friday and Saturday. There's free parking on a lot at Olive and 15th, but don't forget to grab a parking token at the Olive or Locust street issue desks when you enter the library. For more information, call 314-241-2288 or ask a librarian at www.slpl.org.

Today's trivia

According to a new study, how many bubbles would you see in the average flute of champagne?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: In the early 1800s, it was an area of New York City owned by tycoon John Jacob Astor, who made a killing selling off lots for hotels and other businesses. By 1872, it was the center of New York's carriage industry, so city fathers started to call it Longacre Square after a similar area in London called Long Acre. Then, in 1904, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs moved his paper into a new skyscraper on 42nd Street at Longacre Square. Ochs persuaded Mayor George B. McClellan to build a subway station there, and on April 8, 1904, the area was renamed Times Square. Three weeks later, the first electric billboard appeared on the side of a bank at 46th and Broadway.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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