WASHINGTON - Car dealers have new ammunition to use in their fight for national title-branding legislation: Some of the federal government's own crash-test vehicles have been resold with clean titles.
The reselling of wrecked test vehicles with washed titles was first reported in The Washington Post Jan. 9. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which conducted the tests, confirmed the accuracy of the story last week.
'It is an embarrassment to them that their own test cars find their way back into used-car commerce,' said Tom Greene, chief lobbyist for the National Automobile Dealers Association.
He said NADA will cite the incidents when it lobbies for an association-backed bill to bring uniformity to state laws on branding salvage vehicle titles. 'The real problem lies in inconsistent state laws,' Greene said.
As of last week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., was preparing to reintroduce the NADA-supported bill.
1998 ATTEMPT FAILED
The measure had plenty of support in the last Congress. One version passed the House of Representatives by a 336-72 margin. Another version was approved on a unanimous voice vote in the Senate.
In October, with time running out in the congressional session, an attempt was made to attach title-branding to a giant omnibus spending bill that was certain to be passed and then signed by President Clinton.
But administration officials, in final closed-door negotiations with lawmakers, insisted that title-branding be deleted, congressional sources told NADA lobbyists.
NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said he does not know what happened in the negotiations. But he pointed out the Clinton administration last year authored some title-branding legislation of its own. So, the White House does favor the concept.
NHTSA TITLES WERE WASHED
Under existing law, vehicles crash-tested by NHTSA are sold for salvage by the General Services Administration with bills of sale that say they are not to be titled for highway use.
In two cases examined by The Washington Post, clean titles apparently were issued in Arkansas, and the vehicles were resold in Wisconsin.
Because the bills of sale may have been illegally altered, NHTSA has referred the cases to the U.S. Department of Transpor-tation's inspector general for investigation.
But the problem NADA and others want to fix goes far beyond a comparatively few crash-test vehicles.
NADA'S TITLE PROPOSAL
Proponents of title-branding legislation say the selling of rebuilt wrecks as undamaged vehicles -perhaps as many as a million a year - costs consumers an estimated $4 billion annually.
Dealers say they become victims if they unknowingly acquire the vehicles at auctions or as trade-ins and then resell them to customers, who may later demand refunds or file lawsuits.
Under the proposed legislation, a vehicle up to 7 years old would be labeled 'salvage' if it sustained damage worth more than 75 percent of its value or if an insurance company called it 'totalled.' The bill would encourage states to recognize one another's labels for wrecks.
Some consumer groups and state attorneys general say the measure does not go far enough and would preempt stronger state laws.
But Lott said in October, 'Our bill is not a federal mandate on the states. The bill does not restrict the ability of states to adopt higher damage disclosure requirements. Rather this bill provides the basic minimum federal standard while giving states the necessary flexibility to adopt more regulations if they so choose.'