March 7, 2013 at 11:37 AM ET
Sales of used cars are up this year, a great money-saver for families. But you may not know that some of these cars may have dangerous safety flaws.
When you buy a car from a dealer, you ask lots of questions. Is it safe? Is it reliable? Especially with used cars. And when the dealer says, "yes, all good," you trust them.
But we went undercover, finding cars for sale with unfixed safety recalls -- and some dealers not telling the whole story.
We went to the heartland of America, St. Louis, Mo., shopping for a used car in good condition. But our investigation found dozens of dealers selling popular models with potentially dangerous secrets: open safety recalls ordered to be fixed by the manufacturers.
Last year, more than 2 million used cars had unfixed recalls according to a new survey by Carfax, including defects that could cause car fires and loss of control on the road -- even rollovers.
“You have brakes that fail, steering that fails, and airbags that don't work,” said Rosemary Shahan, founder and president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS). “They are life-threatening safety defects.”
But do used car dealers always disclose the danger? We went undercover at several dealers where we found cars for sale with open safety recalls.
At one dealer, we checked out a Nissan SUV. We ran the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and knew that it had been recalled for airbags that may not work. And good news: The dealer was open about it.
"It's something we always check," the dealer told us. "There is an open service record for a recall."
"So if I wanted to drive the car off the lot today and buy it?"
"I think we would probably get it fixed for you today," the dealer assured us.
But at another dealer, we weren't so lucky. The dealer said the Hyundai we were looking at needed a new sensor and had a lot of miles... but no safety problems.
"It's perfectly safe," the dealer said. "I ran it through my mechanic. He's done his 100-something-point inspection on it."
A 100-point inspection? Sounds great. But the car had been recalled for a stop-lamp switch, which could keep the cruise control running even when you hit the brakes -- a malfunction that could lead to a crash. Records showed that it hadn't been fixed on this car -- but the dealer didn't tell us that.
After identifying ourselves, we asked: "Did you know there's an open safety recall on this car? A potentially dangerous one?"
"No. If I knew there was, I'd have it fixed."
"But that's your job," we said. "You're selling cars to customers, telling them outwardly this car is safe, when there's a potentially dangerous safety defect on it, that's open right now."
"I apologize for that," the dealer said. "I do my best I can. I can't look up every make and model car there is."
But experts say that's outrageous; it takes just minutes to look up a recall. He didn't want to talk anymore.
At another dealer we checked out a popular Honda minivan. It looked great, but we knew it had an open recall for the brakes: They may not work well. "Is there anything on it that I would need to worry about?" our producer asked the dealer.
The dealer showed us a report that doesn't track recalls. "No, no. That's why I'm willing to show it to you! If there's something on it, I'm not gonna show it to ya!"
I had some questions, and that's when the general manager came out. "If there is a safety recall, absolutely it would be taken care of," he told us.
"But your salesman said everything is just fine and then handed (our producer) a report and said everything is safe," we pointed out.
"I guess that's something I probably need to talk to him about," the general manager said.
"What if a customer bought this car and drove it off the lot and got into an accident?"
"You're talking about a manufacturer's safety recall, correct?" he responded.
"Why is it taking me and this camera crew to tell you about a safety recall on a car that you're selling?" we asked.
"Well, I want to thank you for telling me about it, and I will definitely get it taken care of," the general manager said.
We took our results to the industry group representing used car dealers. Steve Jordan, chief operating officer of the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association (NIADA), said used car dealers should fix recalls. But believe it or not, there's no federal law requiring them to.
"Sitting here today, would you support legislation that would require these car dealers to fix every vehicle before they sell them?" we asked.
"Well I don't know that we're in a position -- to take a position on that at this point," he told us.
Jordan said there's no reliable database for recalls, and consumers need to do their homework too. Safety experts say that's a weak excuse: Until dealers have to fix these cars, drivers are at risk. "They're a threat to you, your family, and anyone riding on the road with you," Rosemary Shanan of CARS told us.
We should mention: It's free to find recalls and free to fix them. For step-by-step instructions on how to check any car for unfixed recalls, click here.
By the way, under the law, new cars have to be fixed before they're sold. Safety advocates are working to get used cars included, too.
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Consumer Reports: Used Car Buying Guide
Consumer Reports: Best Used Car Deals
FTC: Buying a Used Car
CARS: Used Car Buying Tips
Edmunds.com: Quick Guide to Buying a Used Car
BBB: Buying a Used Car