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Investigation: 25,000 government cars have open safety recalls that could endanger drivers

A Spotlight on America investigation uncovered thousands of cars in the federal government's fleet have open, unfixed safety recalls (Photo: Alex Brauer)
A Spotlight on America investigation uncovered thousands of cars in the federal government's fleet have open, unfixed safety recalls (Photo: Alex Brauer)
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**UPDATE 3/26/21: Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House that would ban federal agencies from selling or leasing any vehicle with an open recall. The proposal from Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Il., comes after years of investigation by the Spotlight on America team. Our reporting uncovered the nationwide sale and lease of thousands of dangerous recalled cars by the General Services Administration, which oversees more than 200,000 cars in the federal fleet.

Krishnamoorthi's bill says that federal agencies must make repairs to cars with open recalls unless the defects have been remedied. In situations where a remedy is unavailable, the proposal says the government still cannot sell or lease the vehicle until notification has been made. Additionally, the legislation states that if a vehicle comes under recall after it's been leased out to a federal agency, that agency then has to make the repair.

In his announcement about the proposed legislation, Krishnamoorthi cited a Spotlight on America investigation that found tens of thousands of cars leased out by the GSA to government agencies across the country had dangerous open recalls. He said, “The presence of recalled cars on the road is dangerous to drivers and to everyone around them which makes it inexcusable that the federal government is facilitating these risks by continuing to sell and lease such vehicles."

The bill is supported by several organizations including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Safety Council and the Center for Auto Safety, which has been featured in years of Spotlight on America reporting about this issue. CAS Executive Director Jason Levine said, "There is no reason for the Federal Government to be trafficking in dangerous unrepaired vehicles under recall, yet that is the case today. Federal employees, and everyone with whom they share the road, are being put at risk daily by the tens of thousands of recalled vehicles they are forced to drive."

Scroll down to read our investigation below.

WASHINGTON (SBG) — A potential danger for drivers is being ignored by the federal government, and it may be putting everyone on the road at risk. An exclusive Spotlight on America investigation reveals tens of thousands of cars in the federal fleet across the country are under active safety recalls, but there's been no action to fix them despite federal workers getting behind the wheel. Now, Spotlight on America's discovery is forcing new action in Congress.

The General Services Administration maintains a federal fleet of more than 200,000 cars are driven by workers in dozens of agencies all over the country. A Spotlight on America investigation uncovered that tens of thousands of those vehicles have defects that could be potentially dangerous or even deadly. Among the flaws we uncovered were problems that could send metal fragments flying from the airbag in a crash, issues that could spark fires, stall engines while a car is at full speed, cause steering wheels to separate from their columns, and result in the failure of seatbelts or other equipment.

According to Jason Levine, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, cars are only placed under a federal recall if they have a dangerous defect or violate a federal standard. "These are really dangerous things that can injure and kill people and do all the time," Levine said.

"If you're allowing federal employees to drive around in recalled vehicles, you're not just putting the driver in danger, you're putting everyone on the road who shares the road with those cars in danger," Jason Levine told us.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request made to the GSA, Spotlight on America obtained the Vehicle Identification Numbers, or VINs, for 207,000 cars in the federal fleet. Then, we ran them through the Vehicle Recall Search Service, a tool developed by Carfax and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. Using that tool, we discovered more than 25,000 cars being used by the federal government have unfixed open recalls, many that date back years. Additionally, we found some cars racking up as many as five defects that haven't been repaired by the government.

Our digging shows recalled vehicles in the hands of at least 45 different federal government agencies. They included everyone from the Department of Defense to NASA, the Department of Transportation to the National Archives, as well as Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the EPA and even the Executive Office of the President.

Our Spotlight on America investigation made stunning findings of cars in the federal fleet. We found an SUV leased to the Executive Office of the President with a defect that could cause unintended braking which might force the vehicle to pull to one side while driving, increasing the risk of a crash; a bus leased to the U.S. Army with a potential problem in the door mechanism that could delay an emergency evacuation; a Jeep on the Department of Homeland Security roster that could lose electrical functions while driving and trigger a crash; a pickup truck leased to the Department of Transportation that could have an electric short that inadvertently deploys the airbag, risking a crash and injuries. Several SUVs in the DHS fleet have just been placed under a new recall this month, involving Takata airbags, which will require the front passenger airbag inflators to be replaced.

The agencies with the highest number of recalled vehicles based on the VINs supplied to us are:

  1. U.S. Army: 5600+ recalls
  2. U.S. Navy: 3000+ recalls
  3. Department of Energy: 2000+ plus recalls
  4. Department of Homeland Security: 1900+ recalls
  5. U.S. Air Force: 1800+ recalls
  6. Department of Veterans Affairs: 1500+ recalls
  7. Department of the Interior: 1200+ recalls

We sent our findings to Jason Levine with the Center on Auto Safety, an organization that's been heavily involved in this issue, advocating for action from the GSA. He told us, "Upon notification of a specific vehicle in the federal fleet being under recall there should be no hesitation in removing that unit from use until it is repaired for free by the manufacturer. Remember, motor vehicles are only recalled because of a safety defect or a violation of a federal safety standard – standards which are issued by the same federal government that is allowing this practice to go on unchecked. Federal employees should be not be required to put themselves, and all other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians with whom they share the road, in danger by simply driving their employer-issued vehicle.”

The issue is also gaining traction in Congress. Earlier this year, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., launched an investigation into GSA fleet management after years of our reporting showed the agency repeatedly selling retired fleet cars with unfixed recalls to the public in auctions nationwide. As far back as 2016, Spotlight on America began canvassing online listings for the GSA's public auctions, discovering recalled cars being sold to the public without warning. Since then, the GSA has taken action to inform the public about open recalls, by adding a bright yellow recall notice on the website for the auctioned cars. But it still does nothing to ensure those cars are fixed before being passed to the next driver.

"I think that your work and what you've done in unearthing this is really what caused some attention to be paid to it. It's just too bad that it takes an investigative reporter to kind of shine a light on something other government employees should have fixed a long time ago," Krishnamoorthi told us, vowing to keep pushing for answers. After getting legislation passed in the house in July, banning the GSA from selling recalled cars, Rep. Krishnamoorthi is now calling on the Senate to take action and asking the GSA to answer critical questions about the fleet. Back in September, he sent the agency's administrator a letter, asking her to provide the total number of recalled cars in the fleet as well as the measures taken by agencies to make sure recalls are remedied.

"I shudder to think of who might be harmed, a mom and their kids driving one of these vehicles, or any family, or even a government employee who is driving one of these leased vehicles, so we've got to put a stop to it right now," Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi told Spotlight on America.

In light of our findings, Congressman Krishnamoorthi issued this statement:

"Spotlight on America's discovery that the GSA has at least 25,000 vehicles in its fleet under at least one safety recall, and many potentially facing multiple recalls, only makes the importance of protecting the public now from these potentially dangerous vehicles more clear than ever."

Spotlight on America reached out to the General Services Administration with our findings immediately, but did not hear back for more than a day. The agency did not dispute our reporting. Instead, a spokesperson told us it operates a robust recall program that uses electronic notifications and monitoring to provide the agencies leasing GSA vehicles with the necessary information to address recalls in a timely manner. Their representative also stated that in some cases, parts may not be available or remedies may not exist. As a result, they said, some recalls may remain open until work can be completed. Additionally, the GSA told Spotlight on America that in some instances repairs may be completed, but the manufacturer's dealership does not update the status showing that work has been completed.

"GSA Fleet strongly believes in the importance of vehicle safety and that critical safety issues, including those identified in recall notices, be promptly addressed. GSA Fleet complies with all laws and regulations in operating its fleet leasing program. As in the private sector, the vehicle operators are in the best position to resolve recalls. Since GSA Fleet is not in physical possession of the vehicles, our strategy focuses on education and awareness. We provide customer leasing agencies with the tools and resources needed to actively manage recalls," a spokesperson for the agency said.

In some rare scenarios, what's called a “Stop Drive” recall may be issued, when vehicles are considered no longer safe to drive or at a far higher risk of injuries or death. The GSA said when that occurs it immediately pulls those vehicles from service and indicated they are not used or sold until the issue has been handled.

To find out if you're driving a recalled car, you can use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tool to search your car's Vehicle Identification number here. The agency has long maintained members of the public should have recalls on their vehicles repaired as a matter of public safety. Those repairs, whether for the public or the federal government, are always done at no cost. Carfax also offers a free recall search to the public.

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A full list of agencies with vehicles with open recalls according to the VINs we obtained is below:

  • Agency for International Development
  • American Battle Monuments Commission
  • Capitol Police
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission
  • Civil Corps of Engineers
  • DC Government
  • Dept. of Agriculture
  • Dept. of Commerce
  • Dept. of Defense (Office of Secretary of Defense)
  • Dept. of Education
  • Dept. of Energy
  • Dept. of Health & Human Services
  • Dept. of Housing and Urban Development
  • Dept. of Justice
  • Dept. of Labor
  • Dept. of State
  • Dept. of the Air Force
  • Dept. of the Army
  • Dept. of the Interior
  • Dept. of the Navy
  • Dept. of the Treasury
  • Dept. of Transportation
  • Dept. of Veterans Affairs
  • Dept. of Homeland Security
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Executive Office of the President
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • General Service Administration
  • Judiciary
  • Library of Congress
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Science Foundation
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Office of Personnel Management
  • Railroad Retirement Board
  • Small Business Administration
  • Tribal Org Non-Spon
  • United States Postal Service
  • United States Tax Court
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