The number of vehicles recalled fell to a seven-year low, down 40 percent from 2000. Nearly 11 million of last year's recalls were voluntary, initiated by automakers.
A record 24 million cars, light trucks and sport-utility vehicles were recalled in 2000 -- the same year Bridgestone/Firestone recalled more than 6.5 million defective AT, ATX and ATX II tires because of tread separation incidents linked to 271 deaths and more than 800 injuries.
In the wake of the headline-grabbing Explorer/Firestone debacle, Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Officer William Clay Ford Jr. has made improving quality key to the recovery of the world's No. 2 automaker, which lost $5.45 billion last year. Ford's quality ratings were last among the major carmakers last year (as rated by J.D. Power) while other manufacturers, notably General Motors and Nissan, have continued to improve the quality of their vehicles.
A National Research Council report released Thursday said federal rollover ratings for cars, SUVs and light trucks don't give consumers enough information and urged NHTSA to conduct actual road tests to determine the tendency of a vehicle to rollover in a crash.
NHTSA for the past two years has used a five-star system rating a vehicle's propensity to rollover -- with five-stars the highest. The ratings are based on a formula using a vehicle's speed, width and center of gravity height to determine the "static stability factor." No actual road tests are performed.
Only one American-made SUV, the Pontiac Aztek, earned a 4-star rating -- given to a vehicle with between a 10 percent and 20 percent risk of rollover. The Acura MDX 4x4 also got four stars.
"The five-star system should be revised to allow better discrimination among vehicles and incorporate results from road tests that measure vehicle control and handling characteristics," the report said. "Moreover, the limited procedures used by NHTSA to develop the ratings and evaluate consumers' ability to understand them raise questions about the system's effectiveness."
The report, commissioned by Congress, contends star ratings are too broad and don't provide enough crash data about the factors that cause 10,000 rollover-related deaths and 27,000 serious injuries in the United States annually.
Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, joined a 13-member panel of the National Academy of Science in calling for a numerical rollover rating system that would be more informative.
"Without precise consumer information, auto manufacturers can continue to tell customers that more rollover-prone vehicles are safer than they really are," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said. "The National Research Council report confirms that consumers need more detailed information than the government is now providing."