BALTIMORE - If you're in the market for a used car, you look at a lot of different things. The price, the mileage, even the color can make or break a decision. Those are things you can see on a used car. But what about the things you can't? Hidden safety problems are in millions of used cars on the road, and as ABC2 News Joce Sterman explains, the worst part is no one has to tell you about them.
A rear axle that could snap with no warning. An airbag that might tear when you need it. Or a stuck throttle that could send you speeding out of a control. You wouldn't buy a car if you knew it had those problems, but the problem is, someone selling a used car with those issues doesn’t have to tell you. Clarence Ditlow with the Center for Auto Safety says, "This is an accident waiting to happen."
And if you've got a used car or you’re shopping for one, it could happen to you and your family because of a secret dealers don't have to share. Bob Knotts was kept in the dark about a van he bought. He says, “They didn't think that was important, because they never informed me."
Knotts didn't learn the truth about the used van he bought until he heard a shocking call from his driveway. He explains, “They came out running and said, ‘Your van is on fire’. There weren't a lot of flames, it was just smoldering by the time I got out here and the damage was done."
And now so is the van. Every inch inside is now scorched beyond recognition, the fiery results of a simple recall that was never fixed, even though it was issued years before bob bought this car. Knotts says, "You notice how close it was to my house. My house could have been gone, caught fire."
In a way, Bob was lucky, but you could be rolling the dice too if you haven’t done the homework on used cars. Ditlow says, "Your life depends on that vehicle being fixed if there's a recall."
That may be true, but no one's stepping in to protect you, at least not legally. That’s because while new car dealers have to give you the scoop about recalls, there's no law when it comes to used cars. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller proposed a measure that would require used dealers that sell at least 10 cars a year to disclose recalls or repair them, but the bill failed. So at the moment, sellers and dealers don't have to say a word. It’s alarming to Ditlow, "I would never expect there would be an outstanding recall on a used car that I bought from a dealer."
But there are thousands of them, with more added to the market every year. A Carfax study found at least 25,000 cars for sale in Maryland last year with open recalls. Company spokesman Chris Basso says, "These cars were up for sale and if you're a car buyer not looking for these issues you could end up with a car that you don't know has an unfixed recall or several unfixed recalls."
Those open recall cars aren’t hard to find. As part of our ABC2 News Investigation, we went undercover to used car lots around Baltimore, asking about available vehicles with known recalls. That potential airbag problem we mentioned earlier? A Honda in one local lot should be fixed because of it, but the dealer told us there were no recalls on the car.
The bad axle recall? Another lot had a mini-van on the list for sale, but the salesman didn't know if it needed repair. Even if he did, the lack of laws means he doesn't have to tell us anyway. Ditlow says, "It's a problem whose time has come to be resolved because it doesn't cost anybody anything and you can save your life."
It doesn't cost the dealers a dime to fix a recall because the manufacturers do it for free. But it does take time and it takes the car off their lot, so some tell us they are reluctant to even look for potential repairs. That's why experts say you need to research recalls on your own, or risk running into a firestorm just like Bob Knotts. He says, "This could have happened to anybody. It could've been a lot worse. I could have been going down the road and it caught fire and that would've been it for me."
Keep in mind, some used dealers will have recalls handled. For example, if you buy a used Ford from a Ford dealer, that car will be certified, which typically requires an inspection and repair of any available recalls. But a used car dealer with no affiliation likely isn't going to have the information for all makes and models and former dealer Scott Donahoo tells us they likely won't share because it’s not required. He says reputable dealers who value your business should be upfront about what they know.
So what do you do to protect yourself? You can check recalls for free through Carfax or through a special website set up by the federal government . All you have to do is enter the VIN number for the car you own or the one you’re looking at and you’ll get the information you need. Experts say you should also take any car for a test drive, pull the Carfax report and take it to a mechanic for a thorough check.
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