When dealerships remarket used cars and trucks from automakers whose new models they don't sell, they need a credible source to determine whether those used vehicles have been recalled.
Many dealerships consult safercar.gov, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's consumer-oriented website that lists recalls filed with the agency.
Although NHTSA's data are expansive, executives from two providers of recall information — AutoAp and Recall Masters — say there are risks in relying too heavily on the government site.
An AutoAp study concludes that NHTSA's data have "significant" error rates, particularly in listing model names and years. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on that allegation.
NHTSA's records often lag behind automakers' issuance of recall notices to dealers, the study says. AutoAp CEO Mark Paul cites a BMW recall notice published by NHTSA in July.
The notice identifies taillight reflectors that don't conform to federal standards on certain 2013 and 2014 5-series cars. Although the BMW notice is dated March 31, 2015, the NHTSA site states that the recall was to begin on July 24, 2017. It actually started July 27.
NHTSA began reviewing the issue in 2015, but took more than two years to complete that process. BMW began notifying its dealers of the voluntary recall on May 31 — more than a month before NHTSA offered the public notice.
Finding that out would have involved reading all related documents in NHTSA's published record — a time-consuming task. For a non-BMW dealer without access to the automaker's internal notifications, this might be confusing, or worse.
Retailing a used car covered by this recall could pose a liability for a non-BMW dealership if the car were sold without the necessary fixes after BMW issued its notice but before NHTSA published its notice.
NHTSA spokesman Derrell Lyles says the time between when an automaker notifies the agency about a safety issue and NHTSA publishes a recall notice "may depend on how long the reviewing process takes."
Lyles says the gap between a manufacturer's notification to dealers and NHTSA's publication of a recall is caused in part by the time required to enter identification numbers of affected vehicles into the agency's database.