KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Metro car dealers and a national automotive background service are changing their ways because of safety concerns identified by an undercover NBC Action News Investigation.
Click here to test your car. Note, this site doesn't have recall information for: Toyota, Lexus, Scion, BMW, Mini, Audi. VW, Nissan, or Infinity.
An Overland Park fire is just one of several incidents identified by NBC Action News that illustrate the threat to property and human life posed by cars with open safety recalls.
"I saw smoke or steam and assumed I'd blown a radiator hose," said 2000 Grand Prix owner Bradley Anderson. "When I lifted the hood, instead of steam, I got flames."
In Anderson's case, he'd just parked his car and he said his dogs' need for a walk may be the only thing that kept his home from burning to the ground.
"Fortunately, I was only in the house long enough to let my dogs out," Anderson said. "I saw smoke or steam and assumed I'd blown a radiator hose," Anderson said. "I might have been napping in the bedroom above the garage and the entire house might have burned."
Anderson said he was unaware his car had an open safety recall warning of engine fires.
Open recalls found on 30 percent of cars tested on metro car lots
Our review of 50 used cars for sale at Kansas City Dealerships found 15 with open safety recalls that safety experts say could turn deadly for unknowing buyers.
We selected advertised cars with a known history of safety recalls and ran their vehicle identification numbers to see if they'd been fixed.
"What your station has done is the first time in a long time that anyone has actually looked at used cars on dealer lots being sold to the public," said the Center for Auto Safety's Clarence Ditlow.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration issued the recall on Anderson's car after he purchased it, but Anderson said he never received notification.
Our undercover review found the same model that burned at Anderson's home, with the same recall still available for sale at two Kansas City area car lots, along with 15 other cars of different makes and models advertised for sale at other lots that also had open safety recalls.
"I felt very lucky not to have lost my home," Anderson said.
Experts estimate millions of cars with open recalls are on the roads driven by current owners or available to unwitting consumers on car lots or in rental car fleets.
Although our investigation found checking vehicles for open safety recalls can be quick and free, many dealers don't do it, and many customers aren't aware of how to protect themselves.
Our evaluation supported the estimates of experts who say 25 percent to 30 percent of recalls are never fixed.
"Your study clearly shows that there's a problem." Ditlow said. "What it does is it puts in hard clear facts what people have known for a long time, that there are a substantial number of vehicles go unfixed in recalls."
Undercover, the Investigators interrupt car sale alerting buyer to open safety recalls
During our undercover investigation at a Kansas City car lot, we interrupted the sale of the same model of car that burned at Anderson's home.
The freshly scrubbed Grand Prix shared the same open fire recall that totaled Anderson's car, but the buyers were not warned until we got there.
In front of the customer, who was about to buy the car, we started asking the salesman about the car's safety record.
"Did that have any safety issues," we asked. "Safety issues," the dealer responded. "Yeah, like any recalls, or anything," we said.
The dealer shook his head indicating no safety recalls.
We then told the salesman and the customer that we had, in fact, already checked and identified a fire hazard recall on the car.
The dealer initially insisted that his car background test showed there was no recall.
"They had fires," we warned while still undercover. "It's an engine fire recall is why I'm curious."
When we walked in, the buyers were at the sales desk in the middle of signing final purchase papers on the car.
"Don't get nervous," he told the customers.
While we waited outside, he confirmed the safety issue by checking with the manufacturers.
Although new car dealers are forbidden by federal law from selling cars with safety recalls, there is no similar law requiring used dealers to even check.
The National Automobile Dealers Association believes the responsibility sits with consumers and that dealers should not be responsible for researching recall status.
"We're on record as opposing any legal mandate that would prohibit a dealer from selling a vehicle with open recalls," said Douglas Greenhaus, NADA Director of Environmental Health and Safety. "If you think it makes commercial sense to find out if there's any recall for that VIN, and incur the costs for remedying it, you will impose major costs and burdens on used car commerce."
"Any ethical businessman would want to fix that defect before they sell it to a consumer because it doesn't cost them any money," Ditlow said. "Ford, Toyota, or General Motors will pay for the repair."
Greenhaus said part of the problem is that there is no system collecting recall information from all manufacturers.
"If there was a central data base, that would solve one part of the problem," Greenhaus said. "What do you do if you're a Ford dealer and there's not a Mazda dealer for a couple hundred miles. "
"As a consumer who is buying from a dealer, I would never expect that there would be an outstanding recall," Ditlow said.
In response to our story, NADA issued a statement urging individual owners to check their Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) with dealers or manufacturers.
"Owners of pre-owned vehicles can contact their nearest authorized dealer who, using the vehicle identification number or VIN, can check the manufacturer's database to determine if a recall has been issued and whether the repairs have been carried out," the NADA statement said.
When our undercover crew interrupted the sale of that Grand Prix, the dealer initially ordered us off his property, but when we identified ourselves as members of the media, he agreed to talk and later changed the way he checks his cars for safety issues.
Investigation leads dealers to change the way they do business
""Now that it's been called to our attention, we're doing business in a different way now," said car dealer Mark Weaver at Team Motorsports in Kansas City, Missouri. "At the time, we thought there was no recall on the vehicle."
He saved the sale we interrupted and helped the buyer through the recall repair service at a Pontiac authorized service shop.
We've confirmed with the buyer that he is satisfied.
During our undercover investigation, Weaver told us and the car buyer that a computerized automobile background system his dealership uses would have red flagged any recalls.
Weaver uses AutoCheck to get backgrounds on cars he buys and sells.
Our investigation found that AutoCheck, which is owned by Experian, doesn't include safety recall backgrounds on cars from any manufacturers.
"That is correct, and to clarify, there is no single industry source that collects all open recall information, which is why we recommend going to the manufacturers website to ensure that consumers are getting the most up to date information available," said Experian Spokesman Jordan Takeyama.
"We felt somewhat safe pulling the history reports because they have a lot of information however they're only as good as the information that is input into the system," Weaver said. "There's no reason for us not to check for recalls."
Weaver said he is now checking each car's recall status manually with the manufacturer.
"We found as a matter of fact, we have a couple vehicles right now that are having service performed on them for open recalls right now," Weaver said. "Just basically was not aware of some of the severities of the certain recalls."
Because of our investigation Country Hill Motors in Merriam has changed it background process as well.
The new system has already identified recall problems that needed to be fixed.
"We actually found four in our inventory," said Country Hill Director of Operations Danny Zaslavsky. "All four of those right now are with the dealership."
Investigation leads CarFax to change its reporting service
Zaslavsky uses CarFax, a competitor of AutoCheck, to background his cars.
CarFax maintains the largest database of recall data, but our investigation found weaknesses with the information provided to consumers and dealers.
The CarFax database covers most American manufacturers but does not have data on several manufacturers including Toyota, Lexus, Scion, BMW, Mini, Audi. VW, Nissan, or Infinity.
Zaslavsky said that caused confusion at his dealership.
"We didn't know this was as big a problem because we assumed that CarFax was giving the right information," Zaslavsky said. "Since we found out that they don't report to all vehicles, in our service reconditioning process, we've added an extra piece."
Country Hill now checks each car's vehicle identification number directly with the manufacturer.
When Zaslavsky checked two Toyotas on his lot with known open safety recalls, in the recall category, the CarFax report came back with a green check mark and "no recalls found."
Toyota is one of the manufacturers that don't cooperate with CarFax and Toyota recalls are not in the CarFax database.
"Knowing this now, we do it on every vehicle," Zaslavsky said. "And, we recommend that dealerships around the country follow our lead."
No other metro dealers offered plans to individually check for recall problems.
"Your life depends on that vehicle being fixed if there's an outstanding recall," said Ditlow. "You have a safety defect in that vehicle in about 25% of the cases and that defect can kill you."
One dealer said the recall we found was fixed before customers were allowed to test drive it, while others said they would contact buyers to notify them about the recall we identified.
When we notified CarFax of the confusion created by its green checkmark and "no recall reported" notation reported on cars with serious safety recalls, they decided to make changes too.
Shortly before our story went to publication CarFax's website went live with the new way it answers recall concerns on manufacturers that don't report their information.
"That change has been made," said CarFax spokesman Chris Basso. "You asked, we had it done."
On makes that don't report to CarFax, instead of the previous green check mark and the "no recalls found," now the box says simply, "ask your dealer."
"We all agreed that it was the right change to make," Basso said. "We're always looking for ways to help improve the report and this was a good change to help in case there was any confusion.
Our review of the 50 other models for sale at Kansas City dealers identified a range of cars with open safety recalls including Ford, Jeep, Toyota, Lexus, Honda, and Chevrolet.
The NBC Action News test focused on used cars listed for sale within 30 miles of Kansas City with known safety recall issues.
Dramatic video shows recalled car blazing in Johnson County
Anderson's case wasn't the only local Grand Prix we identified that burst into flames.
We uncovered images recorded by the Overland Park Fire Department of another 2000 Grand Prix literally melting onto the pavement of the Johnson County Community College.
"The driver of the vehicle stated that she had parked the vehicle, got out and noticed smoke from the vehicle," an OPFD incident document reports. "She started to open the hood to see if the vehicle was overheating when she noticed the fire from under the car."
Neither the driver, nor fire inspectors knew at the time the Grand Prix was the subject of a fire hazard recall.
"It was determined that the engine compartment was the area of origin of the fire," the report said.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration records indicate GM recalled 1.5 million cars including 1997-2003 model Grand Prix's equipped with a 3.8L V6 warning a hot manifold could increase "the risk of an engine compartment fire."
It is unclear how often unexplained fires broke out as a result of the problem because many officials and fire inspectors were unaware of the recall.
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration monitors recall completion rates for six consecutive quarters, but can monitor it longer if it doesn't appear that the recall is going well," a NHTSA official said on background. "This could also include asking automakers to send additional notifications to consumers."
Last year alone, CarFax said searches identified 35,000 or more cars with open recalls for sale on both sides of the state line.
"Missouri was at least 25,000 cars and Kansas was at least 10,000 cars," said CarFax Spokesman Chris Basso about cars identified with open recalls in the two states last year.
How to check the car you're driving or considering buying
To check cars from Toyota, Lexus, Scion, BMW, Mini, Audi, VW, Nissan, and Infinity for recalls, consumers must go to the manufacturer's website or call the service department of a local dealer.
For manufactures that do report to CarFax, the reporting service offers a free search engine where consumers can check Vehicle Identification Numbers for open recalls.
Check the icons and manufacturers name on CarFax's free recall page to ensure your car is one of the makes supported in CarFax's recall database.
Otherwise, you can call the service shop at a dealership that supports your model.
Consumers can find their VIN on the steering wheel side of the car in the corner near where the window meets the dash board.
"This is an accident waiting to happen," Ditlow said. "Every safety defect is serious and every safety defect should be fixed."
For our test, we ran the Vehicle Identification Number of two Grand Prix cars, and 50 other vehicles with recall histories through databases available through CarFax or vehicle manufacturers.
In addition to finding two Grand Prix cars with open recalls for sale, out of the 50 other vehicles tested, reports on 15 vehicles indicates the safety recall had not been addressed and dealers are not warning consumers.