As the used car market continues to soar, auto safety advocates are calling for new measures to halt the sale of used cars with open safety recalls, and they’re focusing their ire on an unexpected seller of cars with these potentially dangerous defects: the federal government.
At auction houses across the country, the General Services Administration offloads thousands of cars each year -- including hundreds with open safety recalls. The GSA, which oversees the federal government’s fleet, discloses any recall to potential sellers, but safety advocates say that’s not enough.
“Disclosure doesn't fix the danger,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “Generally speaking, when the government is selling you something, even if they're disclosing it, there's a general perception that it can't be too dangerous.”
At a recent sale in Maryland, the News4 I-Team counted more than 30 of 166 cars on the auction block with open recalls, including many flagged for serious defects.
Among them: A 2012 Chevrolet Silverado with Takata airbags that pose risk of explosion, sending shrapnel into its cabin, and a 2013 Hyundai Sonata recalled for defective rod bearings that could cause engine failure or fire.
At a previous sale in Maryland, the I-Team found a 2004 Chevy Impala under recall for a faulty ignition switch that can result in non-deployment of airbags -- similar to a well-known defect that led General Motors to recall millions of cars in 2014 and has been linked to more than 120 deaths.
Levine blasted the GSA’s sale of recalled vehicles as hypocritical, since the federal government -- through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- is also responsible for issuing safety recalls to consumers.
“We’ve got one department of the government saying these vehicles are dangerous -- they should be recalled, they should be fixed -- and this other department of the government that’s selling them to the public,” he said.
The GSA isn’t required to fix the cars before selling them, and there isn’t always a remedy available.
But selling them to the public passes a potentially dangerous problem to not just the buyer, but any subsequent owner as the vehicle changes hands, according to a former NHTSA defects investigator.
“There can and have been scenarios where second and third owners do not get notice ever about a recall,” said Frank Borris, the former head of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation.
While leading that department, Borris oversaw thousands of recalls and said that, even when car owners are notified, getting them to take their vehicle to a dealer for a free repair can be a challenge.
“The sad fact is, many recalls may have completion rates as low as 25 to 30 percent, and it varies with the consumer's perception of the risk,” he said, later adding, “I’ve seen people hurt and killed from safety defects that are avoidable with a free remedy.”
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois who serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, has introduced legislation that would prohibit the GSA from selling cars with open safety recalls.
He called for the GSA to develop a system for the agency to send applicable cars to a dealership for repair before selling them to the public.
“It's beyond me why they wouldn't want these cars fixed,” he said. “Maybe there's some inconvenience associated with it, but that's an inconvenience they have to accommodate.”
The GSA declined the I-Team’s request for an interview and did not respond to specific questions about whether it’s reviewing its practice of selling cars under recall.
In a statement to the I-Team, a GSA spokesperson said, “Vehicle safety is a top priority for GSA. For this reason, GSA prioritizes vehicle safety and operates a robust recall management program. GSA will continue working with Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on ways to improve the recall process.”
In a 2020 letter to Congress, the GSA said roughly 25,000 cars in its employee fleet last year were under recall, with an average of 620 cars with open safety recalls sold at auction. The agency also stated it does not sell cars subject to “stop drive recalls,” in which “NHTSA or the manufacturer declares the vehicles are no longer safe to drive as they present a far higher risk of leading to injury or death.”
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The agency also defended the right to sell its vehicles, stating, “If agencies are unable to sell vehicles with recalls, it would have a negative impact on GSA and other federal agencies by increasing funding needed to cover the capital costs for replacement vehicles supporting critical mission activities.”
But for Laura Christian, there is no mission more critical than saving lives. Her daughter, Amber, died in July 2005 when her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed into a tree and her airbags failed to deploy.Amber was among the first whose death was linked to GM’s faulty ignition switch, and Christian became a well-known auto safety advocate in the wake of her death.
Selling cars that still need repairs “just puts it off on a buyer who may not even realize that it's important,” Christian said, adding, “It would be at no cost to the GSA, but it could cost the consumer everything.”
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Lance Ing.