Just because a car or truck is part of the largest automotive safety recall in American history doesn’t prohibit a dealership from selling it to you.
But how unsafe would it be for a car buyer to unwittingly purchase a used vehicle with a faulty Takata airbag inflator, which in some cases have sent metal pieces flying through vehicle cabins?
There are about 29 million vehicles currently under a recall that has been linked to 11 deaths and 180 injuries. Still, most cars and trucks affected by the recall are actually considered by federal regulators to be safer with the potentially faulty airbags than without them, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is advising people not to deactivate the airbags in their cars or trucks.
“There is an exception,” NHTSA communications director Bryan Thomas said. That exception is a group of Honda vehicles from the 2001 through 2003 model years that have an Alpha driver’s-side inflator from Takata. In testing, those inflators have had a rupture rate as high as 50 percent. Both Honda and NHTSA have said the following vehicles should either not be driven at all or be driven solely to an authorized dealer for repair:
2003 Acura 3.2CL
2002–2003 Acura 3.2TL
2001–2002 Honda Accord
2001–2002 Honda Civic
2002 Honda CR-V
2002 Honda Odyssey
2003 Honda Pilot
And these vehicles, like all of the cars and trucks under recall, are at a greater risk of having defective airbags if they are in hot and humid environments.
Just because you’re not supposed to drive these cars, however, does not mean dealers can’t sell them to you. A casual search of listings shows there are several of the above vehicles for sale, including in high-risk areas like the Deep South. Most dealers with such cars sitting on their lots said they would fix the open Takata airbag recalls before they sold them to customers. Joseph Misla, service advisor at Sutherlin Nissan of Orlando, which has had an under-recall 2002 Honda Odyssey EX listed for sale, said his used-car department typically notifies customers during the buying process if there is an open recall on a vehicle.
At least one dealer in Florida, however, has taken a far more zealous approach. Earl Stewart, owner of Earl Stewart Toyota in Lake Park, near Palm Beach, said he will not sell any vehicles, Alpha airbag or no, under the Takata recall. “I’ve been railing against this Takata airbag recall situation for months,” said Stewart, who fashions himself as both a longtime auto dealer and a consumer advocate, with his own blog and radio show doling out car-buying tips.
His campaign against selling used vehicles under the Takata recall has included a letter to state officials in Tallahassee, a Change.org petition asking that sales of used cars with open recalls be made illegal—which, he laments, has gained very little traction—and even a lawsuit against a competing dealership that he says continues to sell cars and trucks under the Takata recall.
“I found out that 99 percent of the dealers are actively, proactively doing this,” Stewart said, adding that he has sent secret shoppers out to perform undercover reconnaissance. According to Stewart, the most egregious offender has been the Arrigo group of dealerships in Florida, which are the target of his lawsuit.
“At this particular time, we don’t have a comment on that,” Arrigo Automotive Group owner and president Jim Arrigo said of the litigation. Arrigo said that, despite some listings showing cars under the Takata recall for sale, his dealers are not selling vehicles affected by the recall without fixing them first. “Our stance is we would not, and we have not, and we will not [sell affected vehicles],” Arrigo said.
For dealers that do sell cars and trucks affected by the recall, the motivation is obviously money.
AutoNation, the largest dealer group in the country, stopped selling cars and trucks subject to the Takata recall in the summer of 2015. In October 2016, the publicly traded company said in its third-quarter financial results that it had lost $6 million related to the Takata airbag recall. Then, earlier this month, company CEO Mike Jackson told Automotive News that it will once again auction or retail cars under the recall, although it will disclose their defect to buyers.
That prompted a response from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who spearheaded legislation in 2015 that would have stopped any dealership from selling a used car or truck under a safety recall. (That bill stalled in committee.) “AutoNation’s decision to resume the sale of deadly used cars in the wake of this presidential election is deeply troubling and will lead to tragic consequences on our nation’s roads and highways,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “After reversing course on its widely advertised pledge to not sell defective cars, AutoNation now bears the responsibility of informing consumers about its broken promise.”
While NHTSA has taken the policy that non-Alpha vehicles are relatively safer to drive, it is still not thrilled with dealerships selling the affected vehicles. “It’s something that we don’t like and we don’t want to happen,” Thomas said. “But people buying the cars should know about [the recall] and know it’s a free fix.”
Some automakers will not certify a used car unless a Takata airbag has first been remedied. “As you may know, federal law permits trading, selling, and delivering used vehicles with open recalls,” Ford safety communications manager Elizabeth Weigandt said. “Ford requires dealers to fix used vehicles with open recalls under its Certified Pre-Owned program before sale or delivery to consumers.” Same with Honda, which said in an emailed statement that “it has a longstanding policy prohibiting its dealers from selling new or used vehicles with open safety recalls.”
For his part, Stewart said, he will continue to refuse to sell or wholesale cars or trucks with safety recalls until they’ve been fixed. His lawsuit against Arrigo has a January 30 hearing date. In addition to seeking damages for his own lost sales due to the recall, the suit argues that it’s illegal to sell affected vehicles under a Florida law called the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Stewart said he hoped the lawsuit would have a ripple effect in South Florida and then expand outward. He said at the very least he’d settle for dealers acknowledging that they’re selling cars and trucks affected by the massive recall and pledging to stop doing so.
“If they sell a car that could blow up in your face and send shrapnel into your brain, at least the dealers who sell the car should tell you about it,” he said.