‘GMA’ Investigates: Do Used Car Dealers Know about Open Airbag Recalls?

There are approximately 8 million cars subject to an airbag recall today

November 18, 2014, 7:40 AM

— -- There are approximately 8 million cars subject to an airbag recall today, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ten automakers in total have been affected by the recalls.

Stephanie Erdman, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, was a driver of one of the affected cars.

The 29-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, bought a used 2002 Honda Civic in 2006. Erdman says she was never made aware that a few years after she purchased the vehicle, the airbags were recalled. Then, in September, 2013 she got into an accident in her car which severely injured her.

“The airbags deployed and I had a massive strike on my right side," Erdman said of the accident. “I just blinded out on that side and I just felt this dripping blood… It was absolutely horrible.”

Erdman later found out it was a piece of twisted metal that struck her, which she says shot out of the airbag and into her face.

“It’s an airbag,” she told ABC News. “It’s supposed to protect me.”

“The very device that's designed to provide supplemental restraint or protection in a crash is what's actually causing the injuries to people,” Erdman’s lawyer, Rob Ammons told ABC News.

Erdman is now suing Honda, Takata, the maker of the airbag, and the dealership that sold her the car. All of them deny responsibility.

“I think there's certainly a moral obligation that if you're going to be in the business of selling products, pre-owned vehicles, that you assure that there are not known defects,” Ammons said.

"GMA" Investigates wondered: what are used car dealers saying about the cars for sale on their lots with potentially dangerous airbags?

While automakers are required by law to notify their new car dealers and the car’s registered owner about any recalls at the time they are issued, there is currently no federal law stopping car dealers from selling cars with open recalls, or requiring used car dealers to check for them.

So ABC News producer Gerry Wagschal went undercover into nine used car lots in New York, New Jersey, and Alabama, to see what salespeople would say when we asked them about specific cars that we knew had open airbag recalls.

Of the nine dealers ABC News went to, five told our producer they didn’t know if there was an airbag recall on the car, while four dealers told our producer there was no such recall.

During our investigation, only one car dealer, in Mobile, AL checked for a recall on the spot. The salesman told our producer that he would Google the car’s VIN (vehicle identification number) and search for a recall. He didn’t find any information, so he then called a Honda dealer and discovered a recall on the car’s airbag.

Other dealerships told our producer that there was no airbag recalls on the vehicles we identified.

“It doesn’t have a recall for it,” a saleswoman in Paterson, NJ, told our producer. “No, no that I know of.”

When asked again whether there was a recall on the airbag, she replied no.

A manager at the Paterson location later told ABC News, “Usually if there is an open recall the vehicle manufacturer has to notify us and they didn’t notify us in this case… We usually don’t check the VIN in a database. In certain cases we call the dealer.”

ABC News also went to a car dealership in Hawthorne, N.J. to inquire about a vehicle with an open recall.

“That has zero recalls,” a salesman there told our producer.

Later the salesman told ABC News, “We didn’t get any recall notice. All cars are titled in my name. If there’s a recall on a vehicle it won’t go out the door without first checking. I get recall letters. I didn’t get a letter. I do not have a letter on that recall. Before you would have bought the vehicle I would have run a carfax and if there was a recall it would not have gone out before it was fixed. I have a Cobalt right now with a recall that is getting fixed right now at the dealer.”

Auction Direct Auto Sales in Jersey City, N.J. also told our producer there was no airbag recall on a vehicle. But, in fact, there was a recall, and it was one of four cars at that dealership under recall for the potentially dangerous airbags. Later ABC News’ Gio Benitez made a return visit to the car lot.

“So listen, you told Gerry that this didn’t have a recall, but it does,” Benitez told the salesman, Roberto Tanco.

“It does?” Tanco asked.

But Roberto told ABC News it’s not his fault, it’s the manufacturer’s. And although he feels responsible for the cars he sells, he said the automaker should have sent a recall letter.

“We need somebody to let us know and that person is the company, the manufacturer,” Tanco said.

The problem is recall notices are sent at the time of the recall to the registered owner and the carmaker’s new car dealers, but sometimes never again. Also, not all used car dealers are required to register their cars. If the used car dealer did not register the car, they would not receive a recall notice.

The owner of Auction Direct Auto Sales told GMA Investigates that he hadn’t registered the SUV our producer inquired about and that, “We are not required by law to check for recalls. We don’t have time to check for open recalls.”

Even so, Tanco told ABC News that he will start checking online for recalls, and wrote down the government website to do so - www.safercar.gov - right in front our cameras.

The government agency, NHTSA runs that site and tells "GMA" Investigates the Department of Transportation has proposed a law that would make it illegal for used car dealers to sell cars with open recalls without fixing them.

Our ABC News investigation concluded that in many cases, it’s up to the consumer to check for open recalls before purchasing a used vehicle.

The site CARFAX, which is used by millions of consumers each year searching for vehicle history information, offers a free service at www.mycarfax.com that monitors cars for recalls. The service is also available through an application on Apple and Android devices.

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