(USA TODAY) Government auto safety officials announced a rule Wednesday to improve car-shopping research, and boost the effectiveness of safety recalls.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the final rule requires automakers' public websites to allow searches for active recalls using a car's or truck's vehicle identification number (VIN). The information must be updated at least weekly.
Sounds sensible, and indeed some car companies already do it, but it's the first industry-wide regulation standardizing and simplifying the searches. It also applies to motorcycle manufacturers.
Makers have one year from today to install the feature, and they appear eager to do it.
"The goal here is to increase recall completion rates through greater consumer awareness. Providing safety recall information on the websites of automakers" is effective and uses databases car companies already maintain, says the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the main trade group representing major car companies.
NHTSA says more than 70% of recalled vehicles get fixed. But that leaves a significant number that don't because the owners don't bother, don't know about the recalls, or the vehicles were junked.
Automakers won't have to list recalled vehicles that have been brought in for the repairs, just those that haven't. If a vehicle isn't listed in a VIN search, it either hasn't been recalled, or was recalled and fixed.
"This is an important development. It should make it easier for people buying used cars to know if the vehicle they're about to purchase was part of an uncompleted recall," says Carroll Lachnit, an editor at auto research and shopping site Edmunds.com.
A vehicle's recall history is "fundamentally valuable information" that "shouldn't require legal arm-twisting" to make it easily available, says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at auto researcher Kelley Blue Book.
"Given that recalls affect both ownership costs and, potentially, vehicle safety, it makes sense," he says, to require easy searches.
A NHTSA website eventually will link to the car company recall search features, hoping to broaden the number of people using the tool.
Safety place: Government site eventually will link to car company search tools
Already there: Safety center links to automakers' recall search sites
The measure's overdue, some auto experts say.
"It's a great thing. The Center for Auto Safety is very happy," says Clarence Ditlow, chief of the advocacy organization -- which he says has been pressing for just such a recall-search feature for 20 years.
The center's website has a recall section that links to the car-company sites that already provide recall searches.
Other provisions of the NHTSA rule:
• Car companies must use the official Department of Transportation logo on recall letters they send to owners. That's to make the seriousness immediately clear to car owners, NHTSA says, "by distinguishing the notices from routine correspondence."
It also should eliminate any temptation to downplay a recall as a simple service issue, which automakers sometimes have done.
• Automakers must tell NHTSA exactly what propulsion system and crash avoidance technologies the vehicles have. NHTSA says that will help "spot defect trends related to those systems and technologies."
James R. Healey