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Toyota, GM recalls in U.S. are on a record pace so far in 2014

DETROIT — Big U.S. recalls by General Motors and Toyota have put the auto industry on a record pace as companies try to avoid bad publicity and punishment from an increasingly aggressive government.

On Wednesday, Toyota announced a recall of nearly 1.8 million U.S. vehicles to fix several problems, including airbags that might not inflate. It's part of a worldwide recall of 6.4 million cars and trucks.

So far this year, automakers have recalled about 9 million vehicles in the United States. If that pace continues, the nation would break the record of 30.8 million recalled vehicles set in 2004.

Most of the recalls have been from Toyota and General Motors, two automakers that are under government scrutiny and facing bad publicity and allegations that they concealed safety issues.

Toyota's latest recalls were announced before the company even developed specific repairs. They come two weeks after the Justice Department skewered the Japanese automaker for covering up problems that caused unintended acceleration in some cars starting in 2009. Toyota agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle that case, but federal prosecutors can resurrect a wire fraud charge if the company fails to comply with the terms of the settlement.

Toyota's actions come as rival GM recalls 2.6 million small cars for defective ignition switches the company links to at least 13 deaths. Of those, 2.2 million are in the United States. As that crisis unfolded, GM announced recalls of 3.4 million more U.S. vehicles.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said automakers historically have been quick to fix safety problems when faced with investigations and bad publicity.

After highly publicized cases in the past, such as Ford's trouble with Explorers and Firestone tires in the late 1990s, automakers at first quickly issued recalls. But recalls dropped off as the bad publicity faded, Ditlow said.

Automakers in the United States are required to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and recall cars within five days of finding a safety defect. But corporate committees that govern recalls can take a long time to determine whether a faulty part is a safety defect. That means recalls can take longer.

But now companies appear to be finding defects and acting more quickly, Ditlow said