Thousands of recalled cars sold in D.C. area, unbeknownst to buyers

(WJLA) - Johnnie Biser spends more than two hours driving into D.C. every morning.

But one Monday, all he remembers is a matter of seconds.

"I can't use the words I used, but I just said, 'Something's wrong here.'"

Something was indeed very wrong - as Biser was speeding down the highway, the used Chevy he'd bought just three days earlier just shut off completely.

"I said, let me pull a Carfax on this [thing] and see what's going on," he said.

What he found in his car's history was a shock - it had an open safety recall the dealer didn't say a word about. What's worse, he didn't have to.

"It's terrible, it's horrible. It's an accident waiting to happen," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

Ditlow says, accidents could happen to millions of used cars for sale on lots and online with active recalls.

Carfax found 160,000 of them for sale in the D.C. area alone last year.

ABC7 found them too - unfixed recalled cars sold "as is," but you can't tell there's anything wrong.

"If you buy a used car, the last thing on your mind is 'my goodness, there might be an outstanding safety recall,'" says Ditlow.

In fact, there's no law requiring used or independent dealers to let you know if a car you're looking at has an open recall. ABC7 found some dealers didn't even know about recalled vehicles on their own lots.

One Chevy HHR that ABC7 found on a Falls Church lot is part of the General Motors ignition recall, impacting millions of cars. Another Honda minivan on an Arlington lot has a fuel pump problem, putting it at risk for fires.

The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association encourages members to identify and repair recalls when they can - but it's against a law requiring that, in part because the federal government doesn't have a database to search for recalls. That's still in the works.

All anyone can do right now is check with manufacturers, or sites like Carfax.

"It's really a matter of public safety, and as a public service we're making that information available free," said Chris Basso, a spokesperson for Carfax.

Johnnie Biser said he's glad he can search for recalls the next time he's in the market - but he doesn't think buyers should be the ones doing the work.

"Somebody higher than my little peon self needs to step up there and say this stuff that needs to be taken care of before it leaves," he said. "And you know, Capitol Hill would be a pretty good place to start."