Buying a used car in the United States can be a dangerous proposition — if the vehicle has an unadvertised safety defect.
This month, Carlos Solis died after the airbag in a used car he bought last year from a Texas dealer exploded, sending a piece of metal into his neck. Mr. Solis, 35, was not aware when he bought the vehicle that its airbags could be defective and had been recalled, according to a lawsuit filed by his family on Friday.
A New York Times review of other vehicles listed online by the dealer, All Stars Auto Sales in Cypress, Tex., shows that close to half of those cars have also been recalled for safety defects but have not been repaired.
The Texas dealer is not an exception. Federal laws do not require used-car dealers to repair vehicles with safety defects before putting the cars back into public use. Nor are dealers required by law to disclose to customers that a vehicle is the subject of a recall. Legislation to address the issue has languished in Congress.
With no progress in legislation, consumers are left on their own to check whether a used vehicle has been recalled for a safety defect, by running their vehicle identification numbers through the federal safety database or on an automobile manufacturer’s website, or by purchasing a vehicle history report from a vendor like Carfax.
“When you look at a vehicle, you don’t see what’s inside,” said April Strahan, a lawyer representing Mr. Solis’s two teenage children. “And this particular problem, the airbag inflater explosions, is a hidden danger and something that your usual consumer wouldn’t even fathom, much less worry about.
“The dealer should not only have notified Mr. Solis,” she said. “The dealer should have fixed it.”
After a year of record recalls over faulty Takata airbags and General Motors ignitions, used cars recalled for defects continue to be sold to unwitting buyers.
The New York Times has exposed missteps and delays by automakers and federal safety regulators in responding to deadly defects in automobiles during what became a record year for recalls.
And deaths are mounting. Another suspected victim of an airbag rupture in Florida, Hien Tran, 51, did not know that the used 2001 Honda Accord she bought from a dealer a year earlier had open recalls, according to her family. She died after her Takata-made airbag ruptured in an accident in September, sending metal shards into her face and neck, local authorities say.
Mr. Solis died on Jan. 18 after the Takata airbag in his 2002 Honda Accord deployed in an accident and ruptured, Honda acknowledged on Friday. It was the sixth death worldwide linked to the faulty airbags. A piece of metal from his airbag struck him in the neck, according to police records. His passenger, an 11-year-old girl, was not injured.
The dealer continues to sell cars with defects. Of the 33 used cars listed on All Stars Auto Sales’ online inventory, 15 have open recalls. Two of those — a 2005 Honda Accord and a 2006 Ram pickup — are under recall over Takata’s airbag defect but have not been fixed, according to a search of the cars’ vehicle information numbers in a federal database.
At least five more cars in the dealer’s inventory, including a 2006 Chevy Cobalt and a 2005 Pontiac Grand Am, are under recall for defective ignition switches but have not been fixed, according to the database. A sixth car with a faulty ignition switch, a 2006 Chevy Impala, is marked on the dealer’s website as sold. Other defects in cars listed in the inventory include problems with the crankshaft and brake lights.
A dealer representative who declined to identify herself said she could not talk about individual sales. She confirmed that the online inventory was up to date. She referred questions to her manager, who could not be reached.
The Accord that All Stars Auto Sales sold Mr. Solis had two previous owners, both registered in Texas, according to a vehicle history compiled by Carfax. The original owner sold the vehicle in 2011, according to the Carfax report, the same year Honda first recalled that model over defective airbags.
A Honda spokesman, Chris Martin, said the automaker had sent multiple recall notices to previous owners, starting in 2011. And though the car was later included in a new recall, in June of last year, Honda had not yet mailed a recall notice to Mr. Solis, Mr. Martin said.
Mr. Martin said dealers and potential car owners could check for outstanding recalls on any car by obtaining a report from a service like Carfax. Since 2011, “there was never a time when the vehicle involved in the Texas crash was not publicly listed as under recall,” he said.
More vehicles, including old models, have been recalled in the United States in 2014 than ever before. Explore the size and scope of the recalls, and find out if your car has been affected.
In Congress, lawmakers have introduced bills that would require used-car dealers and rental companies to fix recalled cars before they are put back into public use. But those measures, which auto dealers oppose, have stalled. Most major rental companies, though, now say that they voluntarily fix recalled vehicles.
Used-car dealers contend that not all recalls require immediate attention and new laws would cost companies and consumers unnecessary time and expense.
“As a best practice, we would recommend that our dealers disclose and repair cars with open recall,” said Steve Jordan, chief executive of the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association. “But from a legislative perspective, we have historically opposed any measure that would require it.”
Another problem, Mr. Jordan said, was that used-car dealers could not themselves repair an open recall and so would have to wait to have their cars serviced at rival dealerships authorized by the automakers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it will again push for Congress to prohibit used-car dealerships from selling vehicles with an open recall and the rental of vehicles with an open recall.
“Simply put, we cannot allow vehicles with a potentially dangerous defect from leaving a used car lot or rental car facility without the necessary repairs completed,” Mark Rosekind, the agency’s chief, said in statement.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, said he would seek to introduce stricter rules as a stand-alone bill this congressional session.
“Used cars can be killers if they are sold to unknowing customers,” he said. “But now they’re in a kind of black hole in terms of legal protection.
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