7 On Your Side: NHTSA unveils vehicle recall tracing tool

ARLINGTON, Va. (WJLA) – It can be hard to keep track of vehicle recalls; searching for which makes and models need repairs takes a lot of work.

Thousands of recalled cars are still out on the road in the D.C. area. They can even be sold to you—without anyone even saying a word. But soon, you’ll have a new tool to help you search before you buy, or even to check a car you already own.

Rick Epstein’s Jeep has stood the test of time; it’s lasted 13 years, but seeing the high number on its odometer has fueled his search for a new ride.

“I’m looking for unbiased, neutral information,” he said.

Epstein, and other car shoppers and owners, will soon get this information, thanks to the feds. More than a year after promising a new tool to help trace recalls, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is unveiling one on Wednesday.

“We absolutely need to have that; we need to have information,” Epstein said. “The problem is if you don’t have the information, you can’t take action.”

Until now, the information on recalls pinned to a specific Vehicle Identification Number hasn’t come from Uncle Sam. Instead, NHTSA’s website only let consumers search for problems by make and model; if you wanted to know if your car had a recall, you’d have to turn to private companies like Carfax, or the manufacturers themselves. If you asked used car dealers, 7 On Your Side discovered they didn’t have to tell you, and we found out they didn’t always know.

This is a surprise that could put your safety at risk, and it’s not rare. Earlier this summer, the 7 On Your Side team found lots all over the D.C. area unknowingly selling cars with open safety recalls. Now, with NHTSA’s new tool, there’s no excuse; it will let anyone search online for recalls—for free.

“It’ll be good to have something available … it’ll be easy access for all the cars,” said Arlington resident Sam Townsend.

Access shoppers like Epstein say they need to have, so they can be informed, without worrying who supplied the information.

“I am hoping that if it comes from the feds, it’s more reliable than coming from a car manufacturer,” Epstein said. “I’m not accusing them of being biased, but seriously, that’s always a risk.”

The new tool won’t change the regulations, though. Even if used car dealers use it, they still have no obligation to tell you they’re selling you a car with an open recall.