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Beware unresolved safety recalls when buying a used car

Eri and John Castro stand in front of their 2011 Toyota Prius in Glen Burnie, Md. The Castros bought the preowned car last year, only to find out after they got it home that it was under recall because it could stall without warning.
Eri and John Castro stand in front of their 2011 Toyota Prius in Glen Burnie, Md. The Castros bought the preowned car last year, only to find out after they got it home that it was under recall because it could stall without warning.
Published Feb. 25, 2015

DETROIT — It's a case of buyer beware, with potentially dangerous consequences.

More than 46 million cars and trucks on the road in the United States — about one-fifth the total — were recalled because of safety defects but never repaired, according to a study by Carfax, a company that sells vehicle history reports. Some of those defects have the potential to cause a crash, injury, even death. Florida ranks third in this category, with nearly 2.8 million vehicles with open recalls.

Last year, about 5 million of those cars were sold to new owners.

That's because there is no legal requirement for dealers or individual sellers to get the repairs done before a used car is sold. They are not even obligated to tell buyers if a car is subject to a recall.

"It's a very major public safety problem," says Chris Basso, a used-car specialist for Carfax, which analyzed state registration data for the study. "When those recalled cars go unfixed, they compound over the years, and it increases the chance of those parts failing."

Federal regulators are pushing for legislation that requires dealers to fix recalled used cars. Independent dealers oppose such a measure but say they might go along with a requirement to disclose recalls to buyers because a new government database makes it easier to tell if a car on their lot has been recalled.

The number of unfixed cars is certain to rise because automakers recalled nearly 64 million vehicles nationwide last year, double the old record set in 2004. Government data show that 25 percent of car owners never get recall repairs done.

No one is sure how many crashes or injuries happen because of unheeded recalls. But buying an unrepaired car cost Carlos Solis his life. The 35-year-old father of two died Jan. 18 when shrapnel from the driver's airbag in his 2002 Honda Accord tore into his neck after a minor accident near Houston.

Solis' Accord had been recalled in 2011 to fix a faulty airbag inflator made by Takata Corp. that can explode with too much force. But neither the two previous owners nor the independent dealer in Houston who sold Solis the car in April had the repair done.

A number of attempts to enact laws requiring dealers to fix recalled cars or disclose problems have stalled under opposition from carmakers, auto dealers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mark Rosekind, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx are making another push.

"We cannot allow vehicles with potentially dangerous defects to leave used car lots without the necessary repairs," Rosekind says.

Used car dealers fought past legislation because they didn't have access to a national database to check for recalls, says Steve Jordan, CEO of the 16,000-member National Independent Automobile Dealers Association.

That changed in August when the government set up a website for dealers and drivers to check recalls by keying in the 17-digit vehicle identification number. Now, Jordan says the association may support a disclosure law, as long as the database allows dealers to check multiple numbers at a time to save time and labor, though it still opposes a repair requirement.

The National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents new car dealers that sell used cars, hasn't taken a position on the repair requirements.

Individual sellers won't face any repair or disclosure requirements.

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