Lax regulations mean there is no easy way to tell if a car has had its recall dealt with
Originally published: April 11, 2016
A jury has awarded $15 million to the parents who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco after their daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck of Santa Cruz, died in a fiery crash in 2004 – Alert Driving, North America News, August 2010
The recent changes to Ontario’s vehicle safety certification program were long overdue, after being untouched for more than 40 years; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that cars haven’t changed significantly in that time.
But did the government miss out on one of the biggest safety issues of all? Absolutely. That rental car noted above, a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, had been issued a recall warning of a fire hazard, yet had been rented out four more times, with the work never performed.
If you’ve purchased a new car, you’ve no doubt received notices of recalls – perhaps in your mailbox, certainly when you’ve taken your car in for maintenance at the dealer. Your information is retained by the manufacturer and you are notified whenever recalls are issued for work to be performed. This works well if you’re the original owner of your vehicle and you’ve never moved; factor in a vehicle changing hands or an owner moving about and not updating records, and you can see how the recall chain can be easily broken.
Sometimes recalls are massive – think GM ignition switches or Takata airbags – but often they’re smaller items on a small subset of one model year, or even cars coming off a line during a certain shift. In theory, manufacturers want to be seen getting ahead of a potential problem; as you know from explosive (literally) headlines, it is often the intense pressure from lawsuits and governing bodies that finally makes them step up. Prevention is cheaper than a cure.
When Ontario’s safety standards were recently changed, critics instantly asked why something as important, and basic, as a check for outstanding recalls wasn’t made a requirement of a used car being given a stamp of approval for resale. The vehicle is in the hands of a licenced seller or mechanic, over 70 pages of paperwork is being checked, and yet no pass is taken over the recall history of the vehicle?
At present, you can go on Transport Canada’s website and check the recall history of any vehicle using the vehicle identification number (VIN) that is clearly visible on the driver’s side of the dash through the windshield. The problem is in finding out if those recalls were, in fact, carried out. The new legislation failed to correct the long-standing problem of consumers buying potentially dangerous vehicles with open recalls, some dating years back; the longer a recall is open, the harder it can be to get it serviced. Picture trying to get parts to service a 10-year-old car versus a two-year-old one; sellers might be less inclined to chase down the work on a car they already stand to have a narrower profit margin on.
The Automobile Protection Association (APA) would have been happy just to see a mandated notice of the open recall, if not a fix. The newly introduced safety standards continue to place the onus on the consumer to work through myriad information platforms to determine if the car they’re purchasing could be dangerous. This is ultimately doable, but unreasonable; if a cheese slicer or a toaster has a recall issued on it, it’s yanked from sale until it’s made safe. Why, then, can you buy a car with a recall?
George Iny, president of the APA, is concerned that “car dealers have a similar culture around recall compliance as the U.S. daily rental companies used to have. In the view of dealers and their associations, it’s the customer’s problem, not theirs.
“A second-year law student answering an exam question would have no problem figuring out the dealer selling a used vehicle would be liable for injury or property losses stemming from an open recall existing prior to the sale as a used vehicle,” says Iny. “Curiously, that understanding appears to have eluded the best minds in the auto industry, including the lawyers representing dealer trade groups. APA’s secret shoppers have identified vehicles with open recalls at both new and used vehicle dealerships.”
His sentiment is echoed by Warren Barnard, executive director of the Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario. “There’s really no way changes to the Ontario vehicle inspection program could deal with recalls, which is an area of federal jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Transport Canada doesn’t seem to be taking the matter seriously. Unlike in the U.S., there is no single database in Canada where dealers or consumers can do a search on a vehicle’s 17-digit VIN to determine if there are any open recalls (recalls that haven’t been fixed) on that particular vehicle. If NHTSA in the U.S. can do it, Transport Canada should be able to do it here, too.”
There is no sure fix. GM recently issued its third recall for 1.4 million cars between 1997 and 2004 for oil leaks that had led to fires; 1,345 of the fires had happened after an initial recall and repair, meaning that even if a consumer had managed to source the problem, it still wasn’t solved. Iny shakes his head that government regulators continue to work in silos, with Transport Canada and provincial regulators passing up the most obvious opportunity to stem the flow of vehicles deemed in need of fixes by their manufacturers before they change hands to unsuspecting consumers.
Ford wrestled with nearly 15 million recalled vehicles for the years 1992 to 2004 across much of its lineup surrounding a faulty cruise control switch that caused many house and garage fires. Like the GM fires, many occurred long after the vehicle had been shut off. Would you know if your 2003 Ford Super Duty had the repair done if you’re the second or third owner? If you inherited it from Uncle Bob, did he get around to it? You could contact the brand-specific dealer to access that information, or call the manufacturer’s customer service line.
Resellers are unlikely to spend so much time chasing down open recalls, a fact Iny laments may ultimately end in the prohibition of sales on cars with open recalls. “Too bad,” he says, “as that will create a lot of inconvenience concerning the majority of recalls, where the potential for harm is remote.”
Should consumers be responsible for doing their own investigation on a potential purchase? Of course they should. You can run a VIN number on your phone as you stand in front of the car, and that should be one of the first things you do. But consumers should also expect a vehicle that has passed a government safety standard and is being sold by a regulated seller has also been cleared for open recalls. If those governing and sanctioning bodies can’t easily access whether the work has been performed, will you?