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If you’re shopping for a used car, you probably already know about the major issues to look for, such as maintenance problems and accident history. But although savvy car buyers are aware of these things, not everyone knows to check another important record. And it’s a vital part of car safety

Some used cars have open recalls, and the law doesn’t require dealers to inform buyers about them. Some lawmakers don’t think that’s an acceptable risk to take with drivers’ lives, and they’re seeking to change it. 

What is an open recall?

According to Consumer Reports, every year, tens of thousands of vehicles are recalled. This means the manufacturer has discovered a safety defect, so they send notices to owners that their vehicles need repairs.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explains that recalls address problems that “pose a risk to motor vehicle safety.” These issues aren’t cosmetic. Some of them are so dangerous that the notice includes a “do not drive” order.

An open recall on a car means that the defect hasn’t been fixed. When used cars change hands, the likelihood of the next owner finding out about the recall drops. Plus, even though federal law says that recall repairs must be free on cars 15 years old or newer, and many dealers make the repairs without charge on older cars, not all owners follow through with the repairs. 

A potential law seeks to protect used car buyers

According to federal law, car dealers aren’t allowed to sell new cars with open recalls. However, dealers can sell used cars under recall even though older cars are likelier to have recalls. Consumer Affairs reports that 56 percent of cars 5 to 10 years old under recall have not been repaired. For cars over 10 years old, that number jumps to 71 percent.

Four U.S. senators are trying to pass a law that would make it illegal to sell a used car with an open recall. Known as the Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, it’s co-sponsored by Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).

The bill has the support of the Consumer Federation of America, but used car dealers oppose it. However, leaving the burden of recall repairs on the buyer can have deadly consequences. 

Open recalls can be deadly

If a used car is under recall, there’s a good chance it’s because of a defective Takata airbag. These airbags have been linked to the deaths of at least 18 people in the United States, and an estimated 11 million affected cars are still on the road. And there’s nothing to stop a used car dealer from selling one of those cars.

“Dealers don’t know when they sell someone one of these cars if the customer will even make it home,” consumer safety advocate Rosemary Shahan told NBC News. “There have been cases where people have been injured or killed in an accident caused by the defect within hours, the same day that they got the car. “

For now, the burden remains on the consumer to ensure the car they’re driving is safe. If you’re planning to buy a used car, you can enter its VIN on the NHTSA website to see if it has any open recalls. If so, consumer safety advocates recommend that you refuse to buy it until it’s been repaired.

If the Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act passes, consumers will have another layer of protection from disasters caused by defects. Until then, buyer beware. 


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