TAMPA - Brad Anderson will never forget that first day of September back in 2009 when his 2000 Grand Prix GT caught fire.
"It was terrifying to me because another five minutes and my house would have been in flames. There was steam coming out the front of the car. And I thought I must have blown a radiator hose. So I opened the hood to try and let the steam out. Thinking I was going to get steamed, I backed off and when I did flames came rushing out," Anderson said.
Anderson says he was unaware he was driving a vehicle that had an open safety recall warning of engine fires.
"The recall was for a leak that was coming down here and landing on the manifold below and apparently catching fire," Anderson explained.
He also says he doesn't remember receiving a notice from the dealership about that recall issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but legally, the dealer didn't have to send one.
Even though new car dealerships are forbidden from selling vehicles with open recalls, there's no similar requirement for used car dealerships. And experts estimate millions of cars with open recalls are on the roads driven by current owners or available to unknowing consumers on car lots.
"This is an accident waiting to happen," said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director for the Center for Auto Safety in washington. He says experts believe 25% of all cars that have been recalled are never fixed and better regulation of these open recalls needs to happen now.
"Every safety defect is serious and every safety defect should be fixed because they could cause a crash. They could result in a fire. They could cause additional injury in the event of a crash," Ditlow said.
But the National Automobile Dealers Association opposes any legal mandate that would prohibit a dealer from selling a vehicle with open recalls.
Douglas Greenhaus, NADA Director of Environmental Health and Safety said in a statement, "If you think it makes commercial sense to find out if there's any recall for that VIN, and incur the costs for remedying it, you will impose major costs and burdens on used car commerce."
So how do consumers stay better informed about which cars have open recalls?
"Last year alone there were 20 million recalls in the United States," said Tom Castriota, the owner of Castriota Chevrolet and chairman of the Florida Automotive Dealers Association.
Castriota believes the federal government should create a database that could be used by dealers and mechanics to cross reference vin numbers.
"At some point, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration establishes some website that you could post with serial numbers on there at least between the consumer and service facilities, car dealerships to put a serial number in just to see if there's a recall in it," Castriota said.
But until there's a working system in place to check all recalled vehicles or the law for used dealerships is changed, Ditlow worries about every consumer who buys a used car.
"Buyer beware! You have a safety defect in that vehicle, and about 25% of the cases, and that defect can kill you," Ditlow warned.
The NADA urges every car owner who receives a recall notice to have the vehicle inspected and fixed at no charge. And the association says owners of pre-owned vehicles can contact their nearest authorized dealer to determine if a recall has been issued.
How to check the car you're driving or considering buying
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends consumers go to http://www.safercar.gov to review recall information for all manufacturers, but the agency's website does not have a way to check the VIN of a specific vehicle.
To check cars from Toyota , Lexus , Scion , BMW , Mini , Audi , Volkswagen , Nissan , and Infinity for recalls, consumers must go to the manufacturer's website or call the service department of a local dealer.
For manufactures that do report to Carfax, the reporting service offers a free search engine where consumers can check vehicle identification numbers for open recalls. Visit that site at http://recall.carfax.com
Check the icons and manufacturers name on Carfax's free recall page to ensure your car is one of the makes supported in their recall database.
Otherwise, call the service shop at a dealership that supports your model.
Consumers can find their VIN on the steering wheel side of the car in the corner near where the window meets the dashboard.