Hundreds of auto recalls are issued every year. Consumers known to own affected cars are notified and instructed how to get the needed replacement parts installed. Not every recall is critically important to consumer safety, but many almost certainly do save lives.

Unfortunately, used-car dealerships vary significantly in their policies and practices about auto recalls, and a surprising number of their customers drive away in cars with open recalls.

Federal law gives used car dealers a pass on recalls

Dealers of new cars and rental car companies must stay up to date on all recall repairs, at least according to federal law. Federal law offers a loophole to used car dealerships.

The non-profit organization Consumer Reports talked to a spokesperson for the National Automobile Dealers Association who rejected the idea that used car dealers should be made to fix recalls before allowing customers to drive their products away.

Advocacy groups like Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety insist that safety recalls are not issued unless the car is unsafe without repair. They believe federal rules for new and rental cars should be extended to used-car dealerships.

Secret shoppers evaluate dealership policy on recalls

This year, Consumer Reports published a major study on the question of used cars sold with open recalls.

They found that many dealerships had excellent policies and practices ensuring consumers never get into a vehicle needing recall repairs, while others refuse to make such repairs or even acknowledge the repairs are necessary.

When asked, one dealership claimed buyers could get recall repairs done for free (as they would be the “owner” after buying the car), while the dealership would have to pay. But dealerships are the owners before the sale and under federal law such repairs are free to dealerships as well as individuals.

It is unclear from the report how carefully such dealerships consider their legal liability for any resulting accident.

The challenge of getting cars current on recalls

Only about two-thirds of cars with recalls get the needed repairs done, and the older the car the less common recall repairs become.

That means any change of ownership, and especially a dealership sale, represents a major opportunity to advance the cause of a safer U.S. fleet of passenger cars.