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Imperfect Recall

My wife and I had an experience that terrified us and left me badly burned. We were driving home one unusually cool August night along Interstate 5, from Downey to Los Angeles, when Mireya asked me to turn on the heater.

I set it on low. A few minutes later, we suddenly heard the high-pitched hissing of swiftly escaping pressurized air. The entire passenger compartment of our 1989 VW Golf filled with blinding steam as we drove 65 mph on one of the busiest highways in America.

The hot, oily steam was so thick I could not even see Mireya in the seat next to me. Boiling coolant was burning my right foot so badly I could barely stand it. I opened the driver’s-side door, but it didn‘t do much good and frightened Mireya more.

I couldn’t see the steering wheel, let alone make out the side of the road. I was in the slow lane and sensed where the shoulder should be, so I eased the car off the roadway and let it scrape the railing to be sure we were in a safe spot. Afraid the car might blow up, my wife and I jumped over the freeway barrier and climbed to safety.

Now, two weeks later, my foot is still full of large, slowly healing burns, and I probably should see a doctor. But I can‘t afford to, because I’m one of those adults without health insurance that the presidential candidates keep talking about. I‘ve been home for more than two weeks, unable to put a shoe on my right foot.

I soon discovered that customers of Firestone tires aren’t the only ones whose interests seem to be ill-served by our nation‘s recall laws.

In early August, I bought the car for $1,500 from J&R Auto Sales in North Hollywood. It seemed to run well, especially for a car with 169,250 miles. The glove compartment was empty, not even a dog-eared manual. Not that it would have made much difference in our case.

The car now sits in the driveway, an unmovable reminder of one of my worst investments. I’ve talked to many mechanics and car experts and researched the matter online, and all of our anguish could have been avoided for a $55 part. Here‘s what seems to have happened. Temperatures in the engine are supposed to be kept low by a green goo called coolant. It is piped through the hot engine to the heater core; air is sucked in from the outside, blown by a fan over the hot core and out the vents, into the car, as heat.

The heater core has a cap that prevents the coolant from bursting out. That cap in my car was poorly designed and defective; it blew under pressure, exploded through the floorboard and shot coolant all over my foot, blinding us with steam at the same time. In 1992, the cap became the subject of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recall affecting 650,000 Golfs sold between 1984 and 1990.

According to the online NHTSA database (at www.nht sa.gov), between 1985 and 1995 about four dozen people complained to the agency about the exploding caps. Before the recall, in 1992, about a half dozen of those people reported injuries, and several had sued. My car was eligible for free repairs under the recall law for the rest of its life, according to Tom Hurd, a spokesman for the NHTSA.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know I could have gotten the recall information from the NHTSA. (When I did check the NHTSA Web site, I learned that several owners across the country had reported that they had the repairs done and the cap failed again.)

So why didn‘t the used-car lot, which is obligated to check the car for safety and to ensure compliance with smog laws, fix it? Why hadn’t the original owner had it repaired? Why hadn‘t the experienced mechanics at a Ford dealership, which got the car as a trade-in in July, researched the car’s recall records before selling it?

The answer to those questions startled me. Our nation‘s recall laws do not require car dealers to warn a consumer of recall issues. Tom Novi of California’s New Motor Vehicle Board said there are strong market incentives to do so: first, to keep customers happy; and, second, the manufacturer repays dealers for the repairs.

Manufacturers alone are required to tell owners of recalls. They purchase a mailing list of registered owners from a firm called R.L. Polk, which buys the entire database of all 50 state DMVs each year and sells the information as needed to the makers. Sometimes, recall notices don‘t go out until cars have been sold two or three times, and may not reach the current registered owner.

The car had been traded in at Galpin Ford in North Hollywood in July, and sold as part of a bulk car sale to the tiny lot where I got it. Salesman Jeffrey Berke says he makes sure a car has safe tires, good steering, intact hoses, working lights and a dozen other things; the cap on the heater core is not on anyone’s hot list.

As revealed in the NHTSA complaint database, some of the fixes have not worked anyway. A source at a VW dealership checked computer records for me and found that my vehicle had been recalled for three separate defects, including the dangerous heater-core cap. All repairs were completed on the same day in 1995. Like some others in the database, my repair had apparently failed.

Jeff LaPlant, the general manager of Pacific Porsche Audi VW, the Santa Monica dealership that repaired the heater core, refused to take responsibility, and referred me to a Volkswagen of America public-relations person. The bottom line: If I tow the car to a dealership, and a VW mechanic determines the problem was a faulty cap, the heater core will be repaired for free.

Berke, for his part, offered to clamp the hose for me for free, letting me drive the car again without a heater. “I do think dealerships should help customers find out more about the cars they‘re buying,” Berke said, such as “whether it’s a recall or it came from another state and was involved in a flood . . . There has to be some kind of national system where we can get this information. It won‘t work to put all the responsibility in the dealer’s lap.”

Congress and our 50 state legislatures have an opportunity in their 2001 sessions to look at these issues in the light of the many failings that are demonstrated by the FirestoneBridgestone and Ford recall mess. Now I am skeptical, too, that a few dozen complaints and a handful of injuries prompted the Golf cap recall. I wonder if any people didn‘t live to make a complaint.

After this experience, I believe the first order of business should be a requirement that all car dealers check databases for recall advisories and replace or, at the very least, warn of any parts that have the potential to take a driver’s life. Any private seller of a used car should be required to do the same, subject to civil penalties.

Finally, in California, the Legislature should make available, first to the original seller and then through the DMV at any time the title is transferred -- at no cost, since it‘s a life-and-death safety issue -- a printout from the NHTSA database listing all recall advisories for that make and model of car, and have the new buyer initial a copy for the DMV records.

Evan Nossoff, a spokesman for the DMV, was wary of that idea. “Certainly, one of the things we find is that we’re going to have to explain it, and if we explain it, that takes time, and that slows things down. And we‘re not experts on auto repair,” he said.

I’m not either. But I‘d sure like to know the next time my life is at risk.


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