Don’t take a detour on auto safety

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in 2014 about a safety defect in certain ignition switches.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in 2014 about a safety defect in certain ignition switches. Associated Press file

Every day, millions of people climb into their cars, many of which are under manufacturer-issued recalls for everything from blinkers that won’t blink to steering columns that suddenly stop working. What’s worse, drivers often don’t know or don’t seem to care.

Assembly Bill 287 was introduced to fix this problem – at least the part of it that allows used car dealerships and rental car companies to sell or rent recalled vehicles without direct legal repercussions.

If passed, the bill would make it legal to sell a used car that has been recalled but not fixed, so long as the consumer is made aware of the issue and signs off on it. Providing consumers with information is a laudable notion. Actually fixing of defects would be better.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-San Mateo, defends his bill as “a first step” to protect consumers from the dangers of unwittingly buying an unsafe used car. At the moment, no federal law addresses recall notices affecting the sale of used cars.

“Right now, I could go buy a used car, drive it off the lot and have no idea that it’s under recall,” Gordon told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. “At least, this way I’ll know.”

Gordon’s goal is to provide consumers, and dealers and manufacturers, more responsibility to start curbing what has become a major safety issue.

“It gives the consumer the choice,” he said.

Some consumer advocates contend the bill, which heads to the Assembly floor this week, could help car dealers wash their hands of an ever-growing number of recalled cars and perhaps avoid lawsuits.

Consumer advocates say the bill undermines legal protections used-car buyers already have in California. Now, consumers can sue dealers for fraud, unfair and deceptive business practices, and, if the case warrants it, wrongful death. If Gordon’s bill becomes law, the dealer could have legal cover, if the buyer knows a car is under a recall and agrees to buy it anyway. So if the car’s airbag explodes because of a recalled part, causing a major accident, the consumer might not be able to sue.

Consumers don’t always make the best choices for themselves, particularly when it comes to recalled cars. Consider that in 2014, there were 63.9 million vehicles recalled in the United States. That’s a record number and included the largest recall in history, the one involving Takata-made airbags.

Even so, some motorists don’t seem to care.

A recent study by Autotrader.com found that even when people are notified of recalls, only 56 percent get their cars repaired. More troubling, only 35 percent do any research about recall orders when shopping for a vehicle.

That suggests that giving consumers a choice to protect themselves won’t make much of a dent in the number of recalled vehicles on the road. Far more plausible are several proposed policy changes at the federal level that would make it illegal for used car dealers to sell vehicles that have been recalled and not fixed.

Gordon supports that congressional legislation, as do most consumer groups, though no one expects Congress to act any time soon.

We err on the side of caution, especially on matters of auto safety. A defective car threatens more than the driver. It’s a safety issue for passengers and other motorists. Well-intentioned though Gordon’s effort may be, AB 287 doesn’t do enough to protect the public.