Opinion: When car recalls don’t achieve what they’re supposed to

Car rental agencies and used car dealers are not required to ensure vehicles have had safety recall repairs.
(Mark Shaver / For The Times / )

A recall notice came in the mail Thursday from Ford that our 2000 Windstar minivan has a problem. It was impressive that 14 years after we bought the van, Ford felt compelled to let us know that there was an issue that needed fixing. The cause: A speed control deactivation switch can start a fire, and we should immediately schedule an appointment with a dealer to get it fixed.

Problem is, we sold the van a couple of months ago to Carmax after buying another, younger car (a Ford Escape). So the van with the potentially misbehaving switch (we were warned not to park it in a garage in case it started burning) is now on an auction lot somewhere, in someone else’s driveway, or chopped up for parts with the remains crushed. I really hope the last fate is the true one, because as the New York Times reports, the U.S. recall system has a significant gap with serious consequences for consumers.

As in, whoever owns our van now probably doesn’t know it can ignite itself.


One would think that car dealers and resellers would, as vehicles pass through their hands, check to ensure that manufacturer recall repairs have been made. But there is no law compelling them to do so, The Times reports. Similarly, there is no law requiring car rental agencies to have recall work done on their fleet vehicles in their fleets. The major companies, though, voluntarily agreed to do so two years ago following years of lobbying that began with the deaths of two Santa Cruz sisters in 2004 when the recalled but unrepaired rental car in which they were riding crashed.

This fix seems easy enough even for Congress to make, though it might help them focus if House Republicans could find a conspiracy theory behind the problem. The Senate Commerce Committee is looking at a measure that would apply only to rental agencies. The Department of Transportation is considering requiring rental agencies and dealers to park recalled cars until they are repaired (with some caveats).

Forcing car dealers and rental agencies to attend to basic safety fixes for cars is a perfectly reasonable demand, given the stakes. The opposition to it has to do with disputes over responsibility for lost revenue during the recall repairs period and that sort of thing. But those are minor and resolvable issues, not some grand conflict of ideology. So it ought to get done, and soon.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if that used Escape we bought used a few weeks ago is up to date on its recall repairs.