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Jan. 29, 2009 

Auto Safety Database to Go Online After 16-Year Delay

Consumer Group Lawsuit Brings Long-Awaited Victory for Used Car Buyers

WASHINGTON, D.C. –    A federal database that will allow car buyers to learn whether a vehicle has been stolen or rebuilt after a wreck will be launched on Friday – more than 16 years after Congress passed a law requiring its creation, and a year after three safety groups sued the federal government to force it to act.

“This information will be vital in helping consumers determine whether the used vehicle they are considering buying has been salvaged or rebuilt,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “When buyers are kept in the dark, they can unwittingly buy cars and trucks that have serious safety hazards or have been completely rebuilt and often are not worth the price charged.”

Last year, Public Citizen, joined by Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) and Consumer Action, sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in federal court in San Francisco, asking the court to order the government to implement the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. In September, the court told the DOJ it had until Jan. 30 to make the information available on the Internet and to issue a rule requiring states, insurance companies and junk yards to report safety information.

The information to be made available Friday is still incomplete and covers less than two-thirds of U.S. vehicles. That is because insurers and junk yards have until March 31 t o begin reporting data.  Currently, 10 states are not reporting vehicle data at all, while two states that are – New York and California – are attempting to prevent public access to that data. The data will be available through third-party Web sites, which will charge a nominal fee per record search.  

Public Citizen sent letters today to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. David Paterson asking them to comply with the federal law and court order. Public Citizen also sent a letter to U.S. Attorney-designee Eric Holder requesting that he address the issue.

“We’re encouraged by the Justice Department’s actions and look forward to working with the DOJ to make sure that consumers from every state can access this potentially lifesaving information,” said Deepak Gupta, the Public Citizen lawyer who brought the lawsuit.   “Congress mandated this database in 1992, and it’s about time it became a reality.”

The database would help consumers avoid purchasing a potentially dangerous used car by allowing them to instantly check the validity of a car’s title and mileage and learn whether it had been stolen or was a junk or salvage vehicle. A salvage vehicle is one that was totaled in a collision, fire, flood or other event to the extent that its value, plus the cost of repairing it for legal operation, is more than its fair market value immediately before the event that caused the damage.

“Every year, people all across the country fall victim to auto fraud when they buy used cars that were rebuilt after a wreck,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of CARS. “There are many documented cases where people unknowingly bought used cars that were missing airbags or had frames welded back together.”

Public Citizen and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety held a telephone news conference Thursday to discuss the new database and what consumers should expect.

READ documents related to this case.

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