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Would-be buyers can be forgiven for thinking it's 1960 all over again, despite cars and trucks in today's showrooms being the safest in the history of the industry.

Air bags don't deploy because of faulty ignition switches. When they do, automotive shrapnel flies around the cabin. Headlights don't work. Brake boosters corrode prematurely. Engine management systems need software updates. And more.

Except it's almost 2015. The era of optional seat belts, no air bags, few headrests and an incipient federal regulatory regime are long gone, replaced by increasingly robust government oversight, criminal liability and social media that make the industry metal sound unsafe at any speed — even if it isn't.

Welcome to the recall paradox weighing on automakers enjoying a lengthening stretch of profitability and market expansion. The technological sophistication of its car and trucks, combined with the immediacy of the wired world, are setting expectations proving increasingly difficult to meet.

Recalls are running amok. Automakers have recalled more than 56 million vehicles this year — an all-time record — far shattering the previous record of 30.8 million set in 2004.

General Motors Co. alone has issued 80 recalls this year covering 30.4 million vehicles worldwide, 26.8 million of them in the United States. Faulty ignition switches, a major driver of GM's recalls this year, are linked to 36 deaths, a toll that could climb as claims continue to be reviewed.

A broad range of new and older GM vehicles, and metal from its crosstown rivals Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, are being tagged with recall notices that can reassure and unnerve customers all at the same time, if they pay attention at all.

Deploying air bags supplied by Takata Corp. are alleged to be spewing metal shards into unsuspecting motorists. The frightening prospect, and the horrific details shaping them, are raising new industry concerns of how to manage potentially faulty parts shared by multiple automakers, two ranking executives said in separate discussions Thursday.

Doesn't matter that national highway death rates are tracing a steady arc of decline, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Or that air-bag systems, collapsible steering columns and sophisticated braking and stability systems, to name three, save lives and reduce the risk of accidents.

What matters most of all in the era of Facebook, Twitter and forward-leaning feds is transparency and corporate commitments to swift response whenever vehicles or key components raise safety concerns.

The alternative is public denunciation, withering media scrutiny and official opprobrium likely culminating in congressional hearings, fines or both. Just ask GM, Takata or Toyota Motor Corp.

Or consider the corporate damage to Ford had its Firestone tire debacle of nearly 15 years ago, a searing confrontation between two ironic brands connected by the historic marriage of William Clay Ford and Martha Firestone, erupted in the Facebook era. Ugly wouldn't describe it.

The safe path is issuing recalls, meeting the rising expectations of the feds and hoping that models on their second or third owner will be steered (or prodded) into dealerships for repairs.

Except for one problem, a ranking Toyota executive identified Thursday: The sheer volume of recalls threatens to induce complacency among vehicle owners inured to the arrival of yet another recall notice.

Add their local dealer's chronic inability to get the parts to make the fix, and you have a big fat problem for the industry — and its federal regulator — as low gas prices and improving economic conditions continue to push sales near record levels.

Enter paradox number two: Record recalls do not appear to be restraining sales for the biggest offenders. Credit recalls clustered among older models, many sporting model names no longer in circulation.

Credit, too, the fact that the ubiquity of recalls, save the most egregious, are better understood by consumers who appreciate an automaker owning up to its mistakes, not moving to hide them.

Good, because this trend is not likely to abate anytime soon. Not when any consumer can take to social media to inflame debate, and not when the nominee to head NHTSA, Mark Rosekind, says the agency "needs to be the enforcer."

Next year may not produce another 56 million recalls, or another ugly scandal like GM's ignition-switch fiasco. But you can bet the automakers will err on the side of caution and issue more because the alternative is fraught.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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