Growing List of Safe Cars Belies Fears in Record Recalls

The insurance industry’s list of cars and trucks that do the best job of keeping owners alive in a crash jumped 82 percent this year against a backdrop of U.S. recalls of older models that were killing their passengers.

The number of vehicles ranked best for keeping occupants safe in a crash rose to 71 for 2015 models from 39 a year ago even as the crash tests used to pick winners got harder, according to a report released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Toyota Motor Corp. has the most models on the list.

“Our tests show that the designs of vehicles to protect and even prevent crashes are greatly improving,” IIHS President Adrian Lund said in an interview. “The key thing people need to keep in mind is that defects are the rarity. Automakers are trying to get ahead of the problems and that’s why there’s so many recalls.”

Safety improvements among the newest models have been overshadowed this year as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued fines and subpoenas to pressure automakers to fix ignitions switches and air bags in models more than decade old linked to deaths and injuries. That focus on defects pushed U.S. recalls so far this year to more than 60 million, almost double the previous record.

Record Recalls

General Motors Co. alone has recalled almost 27 million cars and trucks in the U.S. this year, a record for any single automaker. The Detroit-based company has issued 10 safety actions of more than 1 million vehicles each, according to the NHTSA database. Defective GM ignition switches in small cars have been linked to at least 42 deaths and 58 injuries.

Honda Motor Co., the third-largest Japanese automaker, has recalled 5.4 million vehicles to replace Takata Corp. air bags. Shrapnel from exploding Takata air bags has been tied to at least four fatalities in the U.S. and more than 100 injuries. Unstable propellant in air-bag inflators can cause the devices to explode with too much force and spread shrapnel through the car in a crash.

The insurance group, which does its own crash tests and enforces safety designs that are more strict than those required by NHTSA, is urging automakers to add technology that applies the brakes without driver control to avoid a crash along with stronger bodies for certain kinds of frontal crashes, according to the report today.

Among the safest 33 vehicles, which IIHS dubs Top Safety Pick+, the Chrysler 200 sedan from FCA US LLC was the only model from a traditional U.S. brand. Toyota dominated the safest group with eight selections, and had a dozen models among the 71 top picks. IIHS has ratings on 195 vehicles.

The 38 vehicles in the less restrictive Top Safety Pick category included 10 models from the Detroit automakers and the rest from foreign brands. GM, with five models, had the most of the U.S. automakers. Honda, in contrast with recalls of older models for Takata air bags, trailed only Toyota with 10 selections among the safest for 2015.

“Automakers are concerned about safety and when we do tests that detect it, they are responding,” Lund said. “These safer vehicles are available in all sizes and categories.”

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