Car owners and buyers will be able to look up whether a vehicle has been recalled and fixed under a new federal program launched late Tuesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has developed an online search tool where drivers can find out if a specific car has been recalled and why. The car companies will have to provide at least 15 years of data for the tool, at http://www.safercar.gov, and update their information every seven days.
The program comes as manufacturers are recalling millions more vehicles than at any other time in U.S. history, about 46 million vehicles so far this year. That's almost 1 of every 5 cars in the U.S. and eclipses the annual recall record of 30.8 million vehicles set in 2004.
The tool will give drivers "the peace of mind knowing that the vehicle they own, or that they are thinking of buying or renting, is free of safety defects," NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said.
With car owners hearing about a flood of recalls this year, NHTSA officials hope that the new tool will help prevent "recall fatigue" by making it easier for owners to quickly research the status of their car.
Not enough car owners are getting their vehicles fixed, Friedman said, putting themselves, other drivers and passengers at risk. On average, about 25% of recalled autos still need the repair 18 months after the recall was first announced.
Starting Wednesday, auto and motorcycle manufacturers will be required to have a place on their websites where customers can search for recalls using their vehicle identification numbers, or VINs.
Automakers have generally supported the plan.
"We're glad to make VIN lookup for consumers easier," said Alan Adler, a spokesman for General Motors Co., which has recalled about 26 million vehicles in the U.S. this year.
GM is the target of NHTSA and Justice Department investigations for not previously recalling cars with an ignition key defect now linked to at least 13 deaths and more than 50 crashes.
Previously, some automakers provided searchable data online, said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, but the information was often spotty and not updated regularly.
People who want to check on a car first need to get the vehicle's 17-digit VIN. It can be found where the windshield meets the dashboard in the left corner, on the driver's door post and on insurance and registration documents.
NHTSA officials said that no personal information will be gathered from the website and that regulators won't be able to track who checked the recall status of a vehicle.
"I am encouraging consumers to check it out before they buy a used car from anybody — a private party or a dealer," Shahan said.
But the program has gaps that will continue to keep unrepaired cars on the road, she said.
The information is only in English and it is only available online, she noted. If people speak a different language or don't have a computer or smartphone, they won't be able to research a car's recall history.
"When you look at the used car market, it is all colors and flavors of people," Shahan said. "There are many millions who are buying cars to get to work, to get their kids to school and who won't know to look or will find the information isn't in their language."
Another problem is that safety officials have yet to address the number of used cars for sale that have been recalled but not repaired, Shahan said.
Casey Werderman, spokesman for used vehicle retailing giant CarMax, declined to say whether the dealer group regularly gets vehicles fixed before offering them for sale.
"These cars should be fixed before they get out on the road, even for just a test drive," Shahan said. "Who wants to be the dealer that sold someone the ticking time bomb car and a whole bunch of people get injured?"
CarMax said in a statement that it considers the NHTSA recall search tool "a means for consumers to be better informed on all recalls. CarMax is evaluating this website to see how it may be useful within our processes."
Shahan said that used car dealers can use the new database to look up vehicles and not take them in trade if they have been recalled but not repaired.
"If you are not willing to make sure that a car is safe, don't take it," she said.
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