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Feds: Automakers must list recalls, whether car was repaired

Safercar.gov screen grab
The highway administration unveiled SaferCar.gov on Wednesday to help consumers track whether their car has been recalled. The administration now requires that car manufacturers provide information about recalled cars and whether they were repaired.

Most of us have, at some point, received a recall notice in the mail for our cars. But what if you moved, or bought the car used, and the notice was sent to the previous owner?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled its answer to that problem Wednesday: SaferCar.gov, a database for drivers to look up whether their car has been recalled. The website also includes information on child safety device recalls.

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In addition to SaferCar.gov, car manufacturers will be required to set up their own sites so that car owners and buyers may search a car by VIN, the number specific to individual cars. That would allow buyers of used cars to check if a recalled car was repaired.

“Safety is our highest priority, and an informed consumer is one of our strongest allies in that effort,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Owners and potential buyers alike will soon be able to identify whether a safety recall for their specific vehicle is incomplete.”

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Automakers have a year to comply with the new highway administration guidelines. Cars that have been fixed don’t need to be listed. Their websites must be updated weekly.

The website, a collaboration between industry, consumer advocates and regulators, comes at a time when the number of recalls are on the rise after years of steady declines.

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A study of the NHTSA database for 2012 found 16.2 million vehicles including motorcycles and RVs shows a 4.5 percent increase over 2011. Recalls aren’t broken into major or minor categories, so it’s difficult to discern whether recalls related to life-threatening problems have increased.

So far 2013 has seen recalls of hundreds of thousands – even millions – of vehicles. That includes the recalls in June of roughly 1.5 million Jeep vehicles due to a fire safety risk and of 250,000 General Motors SUVs.

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Last autumn, Toyota announced a recall covering 7.5 million vehicles last autumn due to faulty power window switches that could short out and catch fire. Defective airbags have also become a major problem involving millions of vehicles since the beginning of 2012 alone, impacting makers such as Honda, BMW and Nissan.

Part of the problem is that certain auto parts are used by cars of different makes and models. That can make it more difficult for consumers to track recalls.

The highway administration also orders recalls that impact just a small number of vehicles produced on a specific day. Chevrolet recently issued a service order for just four Volt plug-in hybrids due to a software glitch with their electronic stability control.

Complicating matters, some vehicles are subject to multiple recalls making it even harder for consumers to stay on top of safety matters. Honda last month recalled some Fit models due to a fire hazard after an earlier repair failed to fix the problem.

The highway administration notes that only about 70 percent of the vehicles covered by the typical recall wind up being repaired, including those vulnerable to the most serious safety problems. Even when car makers go out of their way, repeatedly notifying owners directly, as Toyota did after a series of issues related to unintended acceleration in 2010 and 2011, the figure seldom climbs above 80 percent.

In some cases, that’s because older vehicles have been scrapped, but many unrepaired vehicles remain on the road, a risk to both current owners and to those who might buy the vehicles on the used market.