THE recall of 4 million cars by American automakers should be viewed in careful perspective. First of all, it is appropriate action to protect car buyers. They deserve to be confident that manufacturers will repair any defects in design or production, even if those deficiencies do not become apparent for several years. This is particularly important when the defect is safety related, as in the case of the 3.1 million midsize cars General Motors just recalled.
The recalls are unlikely to help the image of improved quality that US carmakers are trying to cultivate. The production quality of American cars, however, is significantly higher than it was just three or four years ago. Although all the cars recalled this week are made by United States companies, government safety specialists say that foreign-made autos are recalled at a rate similar to US-built cars, but with less public attention.
There are two kinds of potential recalls: on cars with deficiencies that can be spotted visually and immediately, and on those that must be driven awhile - sometimes thousands of miles - before a defect becomes apparent. The first kind of problem can normally be spotted in the automaker's quality-control inspection; both foreign and domestic carmakers are doing quite well at eliminating this type of deficiency.
The recalls announced this week - especially of the GM cars - fall into the second category: They often stem from a design defect. Usually these defects cannot be detected just by looking at the car; often considerable detective work is required to identify the true cause of a problem. In recent years most recalls have been of this type. The best preventive approach is to use great care in planning and testing new concepts and autos.
The public does want the benefit of advances in technology, but new car models should not be introduced until their makers are reasonably sure they are ready for production. In addition, the makers should redouble efforts to make certain that parts subjected to wear, especially in safety-related equipment, are sturdy enough to do the job for which they are intended.
This week's recall by General Motors has already generated some controversy. Technically, it is a voluntary move, not one mandated by the federal government. But in fact the step was taken after what amounts to considerable government pressure: For more than two years the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been investigating reports of rear axles breaking on some of the 1978-80 GM cars. In April of last year the agency issued a preliminary finding that those cars had a safety defect.
The controversy comes because federally required recalls contain strict procedures aimed at protecting owners to ensure that they are notified of the recall and that their cars are repaired if inspection indicates that should be done. Some consumer groups are concerned that since this recall is officially voluntary, consumers are not so well protected. Thus it is up to carmakers - GM, in this case - to handle this recall quickly, and according to stringent standards of inspection and repair. Otherwise the pressure will redouble on the federal government to take charge of the next recall.