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Tuesday Deadline Looms for Information about Junked and Salvaged Vehicles to be Sent to Auto Safety Database

March 30, 2009 

Tuesday Deadline Looms for Information about Junked and Salvaged Vehicles to be Sent to Auto Safety Database

Despite Deadline, California Refuses to Make Information Available to Public

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tuesday marks the court deadline for private companies and the state of California to begin sending information to the federal government about junked and salvaged vehicles. But while the companies appear to be working to comply, California is not.

The information is slated to go into a database that will allow used-car buyers to learn whether a vehicle has been stolen or rebuilt after a wreck. The database is being populated with information now because of a successful lawsuit brought in 2008 by Public Citizen and other auto safety groups.

Tuesday is the court deadline for private insurers, junkyards and salvage companies to provide data to the government. State governments also are required to gather and report data about junked and salvaged vehicles to the system by January 2010. Twenty-seven states already are sending the information in and another 10 are described by the federal government as “in development.”

California, however, stands alone in refusing to make available to the public the information it reports to the system – contrary to a court order that it do so by March 31. The state sells the data to a private company and claims it cannot break its contract, even though the contract provisions are contrary to the court order and federal law.

“This is a stark example of profits being put over people’s safety,” said Deepak Gupta, the Public Citizen attorney who argued the case. “Congress and the court have said that this critical safety information must be made available to the public through this database. California cannot refuse to comply.”

Gupta is asking the court to hold a hearing concerning California’s intransigence. The state’s refusal to make the data public affects used-car buyers in other states because cars often are shipped across state lines before being sold. Unless California changes its position, consumers in other states will be denied information about whether a car has been previously junked or salvaged in California.

California State Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada also is trying to ensure the data is available; she has introduced legislation that would require the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to make the information public.

The database was launched on Jan. 30 – more than 16 years after Congress passed a law requiring its creation. It is designed to 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. A junk vehicle is one that cannot be driven and can be used only for parts.

“The good news is that consumers soon will have a lot more information at their fingertips that could steer them away from purchasing an overpriced or potentially dangerous vehicle,” Gupta said.    “The information will dramatically improve auto safety and, at the same time, will help consumers avoid paying too much for used cars.”

Last year, Public Citizen, joined by Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) and Consumer Action, sued the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in San Francisco, asking the court to order the government to implement the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System as required by Congress. In September, the court ordered the database to be completed.

READ documents related to this case.