For the first time in almost 10 years, General Motors (GM) mechanics today began fixing fatally flawed ignitions that have put the company in full-on crisis mode. But anyone who spends more than five minutes poring over the list of federal recalls could be forgiven for feeling a little skittish about stepping inside almost any model of car, let alone a horse-trailer (with notoriously sticky locks, according to the recall archives). The roster of occasionally catastrophic flaws is equal parts anxiety-inducing and absurdist. Just consider the latest warning from Mazda Motor (7261:JP): “Spiders may block fuel tank vent line.”
While a spider-infested car does seem problematic, the creepy factor isn’t the impetus for the recall. Attracted to the fuel, the spiders get into and block the fuel line, pressure builds, the tank starts leaking, and the gas catches on fire. In short, a bunch of baby spiders may literally blow up your Mazda. The company is recalling 42,000 vehicles to check for insects—all Mazda6 sedans built from 2009 to 2011—and this isn’t even the first time this problem has surfaced. After a 2011 recall of 52,000 vehicles, Mazda installed a special spider-blocking spring, but the little eight-eyed gas huffers found a way around it. Spiders 2, Mazda engineers 0.
Mazda mechanics, meanwhile, are in an unenviable position. The creatures drawn to the cars are yellow-sac spiders, which are active hunters and account for more bites than any other arachnid, according to Michigan State University. The female yellow-sacs guard their nests aggressively and “have been observed crawling across the human skin surface and biting without provocation.” Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, may have faced irate members of Congress, but at least she appears to be preside over a fleet free from human-biting spiders.
Here are a few other recall doozies from the past few weeks alone, each with a certain Poltergeist-like creepiness:
• March 27: Toyota Motor (7203:JP) recalls 119,000 Avalons over short-circuits that may cause airbags to inadvertently deploy.
• March 4: Newmar recalls 700 RVs for microwaves that occasionally start on their own.
• March 4: Fiat (F:IM) recalls 18,100 500L models because “in certain temperatures” the shift level tended to have no effect—or worse yet—a delayed effect.
The issue at the heart of the GM crisis—vehicles shutting off or stalling in mid-drive, blamed for 13 deaths—is fairly common on the federal recall list. In February, BMW (BMW:GY) and Honda Motor (7267:JP) recalled 11,500 motorcycles for this very reason. In BMW’s case, the bikes had a tendency to take on water through the kickstand, swamping the engine. Honda, meanwhile, said its suspect motorcycles may have faulty bolts that could fall out of the engine and trigger a stall.
Recalls, meanwhile, are only the most extreme conclusion of the safety inquiry process. The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has plenty of data on all the steps leading up to a formal recall, including its own inquiries. Here’s a fun exercise for safety fans. Pull up this database at NHTSA, punch in virtually any make and model of car, and take a peek at the “complaints” (which are probably lengthy). Worst-case scenario: You never drive again. Best-case scenario: Spiders are not involved.