Federal Bill Would Force Owners To Get Recalled Cars Repaired (But Is It Legal?)

March 18, 2015

Many have dubbed 2014 "The Year of the Recall", but in fact, recalls have been on the minds of legislators for a very long time. Now, two U.S. Senators -- Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) -- want to tighten the laws around recalls in ways that might affect you.

We have to wonder, though: is their proposal legal? And even if it is, can it be implemented? 

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We've written at length about the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011. It stemmed from the tragic story of two young women who were killed in a Chrysler PT Cruiser they'd rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car back in 2004. The vehicle had been recalled but not fixed, and because of the flaw, it caught fire, causing that crash that killed the Houck sisters. The Rental Car Act would've required companies like Enterprise to repair recalled vehicles before renting them out (if it had ever passed, that is). 

Blumenthal and Markey's awkwardly named Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act (PDF) would go significantly further. Senator Blumenthal explains that the bill has two major provisions. It:

"Requires motor vehicle owners to be informed of outstanding recalls on their vehicles at the same time the DMV sends out a registration renewal reminder, or, for a new registration, at the same time the DMV sends out the proof of registration documentation; and

Requires motor vehicle owners to complete all safety recalls before renewing their registration."

As Detroit News notes, the bill is modeled after similar legislation in Germany, so there's some degree of precedent on the international level. And Senator Blumenthal says that the bill has numerous supporters including watchdog groups like the Center for Auto Safety and the Consumer Federation of America, as well as one major automaker, Honda North America (which was, not coincidentally, at the center of a recall fiasco for much of last year.).

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However, we have a couple of questions about Blumenthal and Markey's bill:

A. Is such legislation legal? Vehicle registration is a state, not a federal process. There's probably some legal loophole -- interstate commerce, perhaps? -- that gives Blumenthal and Markey a foot in the door, but passage is likely to be an uphill battle. Given the current attention being focused states' rights vs. federal rights, tensions around the issue are more heightened than normal.

B. Is such legislation feasible? This is potentially the bigger issue. For starters, there's the matter of inspections, which many states don't carry out when sending out registration renewals. (Personal note: here in Louisiana, I pay a fee online and receive a sticker for my license plate in the mail, no questions asked.) Some states inspect cars each year for what's commonly called a "brake tag", but the thoroughness of those inspections varies widely, and they're often carried out by third parties (e.g. local gas stations) that would need to be plugged into a national recall database.

Which brings up a related item: a national recall database. Finding recalls on vehicles isn't difficult -- the Department of Transportation maintains one, and automakers are now required to keep them, too. Verifying that a particular vehicle has had repairs carried out, however, is another matter. Sure, you could require that owners carry proof of repairs, but what if they lose that proof? Can they get another copy? Is there a standard form, or will every dealership in the country provide its own kind of document?

And let's not even broach the topic of having state DMVs carry out work for federal agencies.

Those are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.


We agree with the intention behind Blumenthal and Markey's bill: vehicle owners should be required to have recalled cars repaired in a timely manner. Doing so keeps more citizens safe, saving lives and money. 

That said, it feels like the Senators may be jumping the gun. Certain procedures, protocols, and infrastructure may need to be implemented before their solution is viable. 

We believe that a good proposal is better than no proposal at all. We're not idealists around here: we never want the Perfect to be the enemy of the Good. We're just not sure that this particular bill is all that good.


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