Safety Recalls Don't Keep Used Cars Off The Road

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 4:41 pm

Last year, carmakers recalled nearly 22 million cars and trucks — the most in almost a decade. But if those vehicles are resold, car dealers and rental companies aren’t required to fix them.

Safety advocates are supporting bills calling for mandatory rentals. There are two bills pending in Congress.

Paul Eisenstein of the car news website The Detroit Bureau talks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about why at least one of these bills is idling.


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With all the outrage about ignition problems in GM vehicles, you'd think that the last thing a dealer would want is a recalled, un-repaired car. But think again. Used car dealers and rental car agencies are not required by law to fix vehicles that have been recalled for safety reasons. And they're not required to tell you if you're buying or renting a car that had a problem serious enough to get it recalled.

So, when two sisters rented a car in 2004, they had no idea it had been recalled because of a power-steering hose defect that had not been repaired. They were killed in a subsequent accident. And, in fact, the Rachel and Jacqueline Houck Bill was named after them. But why hasn't it passed? Why are there two federal bills stalled in Congress?

Paul Eisenstein has been following this story. He's the publisher of the car news website, the He's with us now from Detroit. Hi, Paul.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: Hi. Good to be with you, Robin.

YOUNG: And we have been following this story in amazement. Do you find people shocked by this?

EISENSTEIN: I think they are shocked. If they new about this problem they would be even more shocked. I think a lot of people just expect that when they buy a car or rent a car, that it is as safe as possible. Meaning if there's been a recall it's been repaired.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, we are reading in The New York Times today, which writes about this, that CarMax -which is the country's biggest seller of used cars -does have a certified quality inspection. But that doesn't include fixing recalls.

EISENSTEIN: Yeah, it's rather strange. Most manufacturers now, in fact, operate what they call Certified Pre-Owned Repair Services. You can pay a little bit more. You get these things that go through inspections and, if necessary, repairs. But oddly enough it doesn't necessarily mean that there's been a check to see if there's been a recall problem. And this is a broad problem because, even worse, a lot of vehicles don't get resold necessarily through either a factory dealership, you know, franchises. Or even companies like CarMax that specialize in recalls. In many cases, they're getting sold from neighbor to neighbor, or friend to friend.

YOUNG: Well, let's address those that are though from used lots or are in rental agencies. The case that I mentioned of the sisters, they rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise. There'd been a recall a month before, saying that the power steering could leak and cause a fire. But they had no way of knowing about that. It did leak. It caused the fire, a terrible crash, and they died.

Enterprise fought their lawsuit for five years, saying they weren't liable. They eventually did admit negligence. But really, they were not required by law to fix anything.

EISENSTEIN: No and they're still not. Now, the good part is that there's been enough publicity about the recall problem with car-rental services that, as far as I know, all the major agencies have taken steps now. They have agreed to voluntarily follow recall procedures and pull vehicles out of the out of service if necessary, before renting them if there's a recall problem.

Enterprise took an awful lot of hits. They took, they got really embarrassed by that story. And they fought it very, very aggressively to try to initially say that it was possibly the problem of the sisters, one of them was drunk, I think they claimed at one point. And then it turned out that, no, there was a recall that they hadn't bothered to repair.

So at this point, I think that all the major rental services generally are claiming to make repairs before you get a car out of their lot. Whether small companies, specialty companies and local, you know, and small airports and the like, are doing it is another question. And, of course, you have to take it at their word because there is no law that requires them to prove it.

YOUNG: Yeah, you don't know whether they are voluntarily doing this. But again, to reiterate, these major car companies also say that they would abide by this law that is proposed that would it mandatory, that rental agencies and used cars agencies repair recall cars before sending them out. They're saying that they would do this.

But what is the hold up? Why are car manufacturers fighting, while rental car agencies are saying they would support this bill, that's sitting in the Senate that would require mandatory repairs?

EISENSTEIN: It's really curious isn't it? Because when you look at NADA, National Automobile Dealers Association website, you'll find a statement from them that essentially says they support a law that would call for the recall and repair of vehicles before they were sold by, on the used car site. And yet, NADA has been fighting the bill, so it's both sides of the mouth.

They have all sorts of explanations for this, none of which are particularly good. Some of them say, Well, sometimes they say the law isn't written well and what have you.

And then they claim, well, it would be an extra burden for them when that corner used car lot and the like, they don't have to be subject to these mandatory recalls.

YOUNG: Well, but there - but...

EISENSTEIN: It seems to be a pretty weak, weak explanation.

YOUNG: Well, they're also saying that, for instance, with the rental agencies, and the Senate bill is just about the rental agencies, that if suddenly a car is recalled, an a rental agency is without thousands of cars that it needs because it's required, it's mandatory that it immediately get them repaired, it might sue the manufacturer for that recall. So there's that sticky wicket.

So the bill is held up. There's also a proposal to make this mandatory as part of the Transportation Department budget. That also would have to be OKed by Congress. Do you think that shining a light on some of these accidents - I mean, a woman who didn't know about the faulty switch in a GM car, you know, unaware of a recall, buys a car and crashes into a tree. Somebody else, they have their axel fall apart, didn't know that it was a recall.

Do you think shining a light on some of these will get some of this legislation through?

EISENSTEIN: Well, I would hope so, and I would like to see that some of the manufacturers lean on their dealers to take action now, even before the legislation were passed. Certainly we have seen that the negative light of being in headlines on NPR and on so many other networks has gotten the rental car industry to take action even before a law is passed. So that's a good thing. You can make them react, the industry react, by the spotlight, under the spotlight.

But why this bill hasn't passed through Congress is boggling to me.

YOUNG: Well in the meantime, buyer beware. Is there a way to check? Asking probably won't make you feel safe. But is there a way to check before you buy a used car or a rental car?

EISENSTEIN: Yeah, there are ways you can check, and one of the most important things is that NITSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, does have a new website where you can go and check. You can plug in your data. I'm sitting here looking at it right now, and you can actually go in and search their recall database to make sure whether or not the vehicle you either own already or have bought is subject to a recall.

And the other thing is take your car in to a certified dealer and ask them to check their database.

YOUNG: Paul Eisenstein, great advice. He writes about the auto industry on his website, We'll link you up at Paul, thanks as always.

EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.