Hidden dangers of used cars

Published On: Nov 15 2012 08:32:03 PM EST
Updated On: Nov 15 2012 11:10:00 PM EST

The hidden hazard you won't find by just looking under the hood of a used car you may want to buy, and how to check and make sure it's safe.

The used van Bob Knotts bought burst into flames while parked right in his driveway.  Turns out the van was one of 98,000 recalled because of a wiring defect that could cause a fire. 

Knotts says the used car dealer he bought the van from never told him it had an un-addressed recall.

"The whole thing was a complete loss for me," he said.

A study by CARFAX found more than 2.7 million used vehicles listed for sale online last year had at least one unfixed safety recall. (A state-by-state breakdown of the CARFAX study is at the end of this story.)

So how serious is it?  The federal government doesn't recall vehicles unless a defect could cause a serious risk to passengers in a car or others on the road.

"They're all serious. They could cost you your life.  They could cause a crash," said Clarence Ditlow with the Center for Auto Safety.

An undercover investigation at two used car lots, one in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the other in Somerville, Massachusetts, found vehicles for sale, that according to car manufacturer websites have unfixed recalls.

A used SUV had an unrepaired defect that could make the engine stall and cause a crash.  A used sedan had an unfixed defect where the engine could shut off while the vehicle was being driven.

“They don't want to take them off their lot to get them fixed before they sell them because that customer is ready to buy it today and may in fact go to another used car dealer and buy a different vehicle,” said Ditlow.

There's no federal law requiring anyone selling a used car to tell buyers about unfixed recalls. 

The two main used car dealer trade associations would not appear on camera but the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association issued a statement:

"Open recall information is often not easily obtained by independent / used motor vehicle dealers as it is provided by the manufacturers. To date manufacturers and new car dealers have been unwilling to  provide the necessary notices, training and/or specialty equipment necessary to make the repairs.  Short of this, independent dealers must pay 3rd party providers (ie; All-Data) to get this information.  Although there are some data providers like CARFAX that have a free reporting tool for dealers that we encourage them to use.  As the information is made available, NIADA encourages used vehicle dealers to repair the open-recall before selling the vehicle to a customer...and at minimum disclose it to them on a non-safety related recall.  Once an open-recall is identified, it can easily be fixed by a new-car dealer at no cost to the used-vehicle dealer and /or customer." said Steve Jordan, chief operating officer, National Independent Automobile Association

Experts say some dealers do go the extra mile.

“Many dealers will bring a used car up to speed on its recalls before they sell it and actually if they do it’s a sign they take really good care of their cars and really good care of their customers,” said Jeannine Fallon, executive director of corporate communications of Edmunds.com. 

The other used car dealer group, the National Automobile Dealers Association  says the onus is on the vehicle owners and used car buyers to get recalls fixed:

"To improve safety, The National Automobile Association urges vehicle owners to have recalled vehicles fixed as soon as possible."

Knotts says he now wants to warn others to be sure to check for open recalls yourself.

“What happened to me, it could have happened to someone else,” he said.

If you have your car's Vehicle Identification Number or VIN, you can do an open-recall check several ways.

  1. Call your local dealer to see if you have any unfixed recalls
  2. Check CARFAX online at recall.carfax.com
  3. Check Center for Auto Safety online at autosafety.org

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website allows you to sign-up for automatic notifications of recalls affecting your vehicles, as well pertinent recalls of tires and child safety seats at www.safercar.gov.

Dealers repair recalls for free.  Getting recalls fixed could not only save your life but also help prevent your vehicle from being sold to a future buyer with a dangerous defect.

State-by-state numbers from CARFAX study:

The study found 2,720,661 used cars listed for sale online in 2011 with at least one unfixed recall.  

TX188,752VA58,425MD36,434OR21,291ME8,738DC31
CA118,756MI50,688AZ35,430KS19,089SD8,044 
FL115,888IN50,630SC33,140AR17,423MT6,807
PA91,145TN49,388AL32,068NH17,415DE6,511
IL88,872MN46,037OK 30,883MS16,689RI5,697
NY87,356MO45,345KY29,273NE13,764VT5,672
OH83,119WA45,055LA26,244WV11,927ND4,322
NC65,800MA44,002CT24,772NV11,840HI3,483
NJ63,848CO40,134IA24,409NM10,350WY3,253
GA63,007WI37,742UT24,174ID10,172AK2,906

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