Domestic and foreign auto makers have been recalling vehicles at a rate proportionate to their shares of the U.S. auto market, according to a recently released report on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's defect-testing and recall procedures.
U.S. and foreign car companies recalled 57.7 million vehicles for safety-related defects from fiscal 1974 through 1983, according to the General Accounting Office report.
Domestic manufacturers recalled 81 percent of the total, compared with the foreign makers' 19 percent share, the report said. That is "the same ratio as their respective shares of the American motor vehicle market" over the period, the report said.
About 60 percent of the domestic recalls were voluntary -- undertaken without a court order. About 25 percent of the foreign recalls were voluntary.
However, NHTSA spokesman Richard Burdette cautioned that the term "voluntary" needs to be qualified. Between 60 and 72 percent of the recalled vehicles are "influenced by NHTSA activity" -- engineering analyses of potential defects or other agency investigations, Burdette said.
Burdette said a court order is the last step in a long, complicated and costly recall procedure -- and has been used only seven times since NHTSA gained that authority in October 1974.
The GAO report also said that:
* The NHTSA depends "primarily on consumer complaints to identify potential safety defects in motor vehicles."
* In fiscal 1981 through 1983, NHTSA spent $1.2 million conducting safety tests on cars. About 81 percent of that was spent on tests of domestic vehicles.
* The NHTSA's procedures in defects testing are "reasonable." But the agency should identify as simulations "any film released to the media" involving vehicles that have been modified to demonstrate the potential results of a suspected defect.
MEANWHILE, ON THE T-CAR . . . the NHTSA has asked General Motors Corp. for information that could reopen an agency investigation of a potential defect in GM's subcompact T-cars, the Chevrolet Chevette and Pontiac T1000. The Washington-based Center for Auto Safety filed a complaint Oct. 5, contending that T-cars manufactured for the 1976 through the 1984 model years could have defective crankshaft-pulley bolts, which could break and cause a car to stall or stop in traffic. The center charged that a faulty pulley bolt in a Chevette contributed to a fatal accident in Vienna, Va., last July 30.
From June 1982 to June 1983, the NHTSA examined similar complaints about T-cars manufactured for the 1976 through 1982 model years. But the agency forwarded the matter to the Federal Trade Commission after concluding that its engineering analysis did not turn up evidence indicating a safety problem.
GM officials said over the weekend that they were preparing a response to the NHTSA. A company spokesman said GM "definitely does not consider" the T-car pulley bolt to be a safety problem.
MORE NUMBERS . . . The NHTSA has spent $32.8 million since 1981 trying to get Americans to use seat belts. That figure includes agency salaries, grants to state and local governments and a $1.2 million seat-belt advertising contract. Based on quarterly surveys of seat-belt usage in 19 cities, the agency says -- cautiously -- that about 13.9 percent of the nation's drivers use seat belts today, an increase from 9.1 percent in 1981.