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Washington — Automakers recalled a record 51.26 million vehicles in 2015 in 868 campaigns — another record, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration said Thursday.

The tally is slightly above 2014’s record, which stood at 50.99 million vehicles after being adjusted downward.

“Clearly, massive recalls are still a prominent feature of the safety landscape,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said at the Washington Auto Show.

“NHTSA has made major efforts in the last year to improve our processes for identifying vehicle defects, and that effort will continue. ... But identifying defects is not enough. We have to make sure they get fixed.”

Rosekind said he believes the recalls went up in part because of increased vigilance by regulators at his agency, following reforms in the office of defect investigations.

“‘Proactive’ means we start getting these on the front end. We will continue to get defects identified and recalled, and what we’re looking for is those numbers to go down,” Rosekind said.

“We’re going to remain vigilant. We’re going to keep using all the tools we can, but we’re beginning to see manufacturers pick those up in small numbers early, rather than wait.”

The agency said it had to significantly revise downward its recall data for 2014 — initially reported as 63.95 million vehicles — in part because of overstated recall campaigns for defective Takata Corp. air bag inflators.

Manufacturers reduced the number of vehicles that needed to be called back as they determined exactly which cars had the faulty inflators, NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said. In a number of cases, vehicles that were part of 2014 Takata recall campaigns were superseded by 2015 campaigns as recalls expanded.

Rosekind said he hopes the voluntary agreement announced by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in Detroit last week between his agency and executives from 17 of the world’s leading automotive companies will help to prevent problems and identify them sooner when they do occur.

“As (Foxx) said on Friday, real safety is finding and fixing defects before someone gets hurt, rather than just punishing the manufacturer after the damage is done,” Rosekind said.

That agreement centers in part around sharing industry-best practices and maximizing safety recall participation rates and increasing the pace at which recalled vehicles are repaired.

Some safety advocates have criticized the agreement for being voluntary, worrying that enforcement could fall off.

“We will continue to use regulation and enforcement. Anyone who’s been watching us this last year, you can’t question that,” Rosekind said. “But you can’t use old tools for new problems,” referring to early indications that traffic deaths are on the rise again.

Rosekind said research by manufacturing trade groups into improving recall campaigns has found that consumers who receive recall notices too often make their own risk assessments about whether to have their vehicle repaired.

The research also found a strong tie between socioeconomic status and recall completion.

“Not surprisingly, if you’re working two low-wage jobs with no paid time off just to keep food on the table, you might not consider it a priority to get a recall fixed,” Rosekind said.

His agency is launching a year-long digital ad campaign, “Safe Cars Save Lives,” in an attempt to raise the public’s awareness of what consumers need to do to protect their families from vehicle defects.

The ads will promote tools for looking up vehicle identification numbers to check for recalls, and encourage people to take action on repairs, Rosekind said.

He encouraged auto dealers to make clear to their customers that recalls are a safety risk they should address, and to make it a policy of their dealerships to not sell or rent any vehicles without repairing safety defects.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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