Could your next cab, Uber, or Lyft be unsafe?

KING 5's Danielle Leigh reports.

If you call for a taxi, Lyft, or Uber in this country, depending on the city you live in, you could have a greater than 1-in-3 chance of getting into a vehicle that has not had its federally-mandated safety recall work completed. That's according to a national joint investigation by KING 5, other TEGNA television stations, and Cars.com. That means consumers are riding in vehicles with issues ranging from the benign to the potentially catastrophic.

In reviewing thousands of vehicle identification numbers (VINs) for for-hire vehicles in major cities including Seattle, New York City, Tampa, and Houston, and comparing those to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) database for recalls, the investigation found:

- For-hire vehicles in Seattle had the highest likelihood of an outstanding recall on average, with 1 in just over 2.5 having at least one outstanding recall. In Tampa, nearly 1 in 4 for-hire vehicles had an outstanding recall; in Houston roughly 1 in 3, and in New York City just over 1 in 4.

- Some of those recalls were issued five or more years ago and included Takata airbag inflators, and Toyota accelerator recalls, among other significant issues.

- In most major cities with large taxi fleets, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., no specific regulations ensure that for-hire vehicle owners stay current with recall work.

- In New York City, where officials say they keep a strict eye on the safety of for-hire vehicles and inquire about recalls, our spot check of 200 for-hire vehicles found that 27 percent had at least one outstanding recall.

- Neither ride-sharing companies Uber nor Lyft requires drivers to ensure that their cars are current with recall work.

Uber and Lyft also took KING to court in Seattle to block the release of a public database with their VINs so they could be checked for outstanding recalls arguing the information would compromise trade secrets and cause a "substantial and irreparable competitive disadvantage."

"Oh boy! That scares me, frankly. It really does," said Seattle attorney Catherine Clark. "Just because the city does not take action on it, does not relieve people of the responsibility to fix their vehicles."

Clark added the presence of outstanding recalls could make vehicle-for-hire companies vulnerable to lawsuits.

"The lawyer in me thinks, 'Wow, how would I defend an accident with someone who had that in the case?' It's not only a liability problem," Clark said. "But it could also affect their insurance coverage, because if they don't take steps to reasonably maintain their vehicle, the insurance company could deny the claim."

"For passengers, it's really like playing the lottery," said Kelsey Mays, Cars.com's senior editor for consumer affairs. 

Chris Basso of Carfax.com, an online service with the most comprehensive vehicle history database available in North America, estimates private vehicles are getting repaired at a higher rate than for-hire vehicles. Basso said 1-in-5 private vehicles have outstanding recalls.

"It isn't surprising because it's also somebody's livelihood. These are vehicles that if they aren't on the road, they aren't making money," Basso said. "But in the interest of safety, it's 100% worth the time it takes to get it into the dealership and get it fixed."

Between 2014-15 the NHTSA says it issued a record number of recalls impacting more than 102 million vehicles.

Recalls have become a large and growing issue for both automakers and consumers over the past few years, and federal officials with the NHTSA take them seriously:

- In June, federal law began forcing rental car companies to complete recall work before renting a vehicle.

- The law has also barred new-car dealers from selling new cars with pending recalls for some time. However, used car dealers are not held to the same federal requirement as new-car dealers and are not explicitly required to fix problems related to safety recalls on used cars or even disclose the presence of a recall.

- The federal government, under fire from lawmakers, has stepped up its enforcement of recall timing rules, hitting Toyota in March 2014 with a $1.2 billion fine for concealing defects from the public and safety officials. That action led to a big increase in the number of recalls issued by all automakers, making it harder for any vehicle owner to stay current with required recall work. BMW recently received a $40 million fine, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles received a roughly $100 million fine — both for issuing recalls too slowly.

- NHTSA launched a national recall awareness campaign to encourage consumers to take care of potentially life-threatening recalls, which are typically free to correct at a dealership.

- However, while federal law requires manufacturers to tell owners about recalls, it doesn't require owners to get the work done.

What we found across the United States

Cities with large taxi populations take different approaches to how they regulate for-hire vehicles with outstanding recalls:

In Seattle, KING 5 checked the VINs of nearly 1,647 for-hire vehicles and found:

- Nearly 40% of for-hire vehicles had at least one open recall pending.

- 72% of the cars with outstanding recalls (1,188 out of 1,647) were Toyota Priuses, and those accounted for nearly 81% of the outstanding recalls (521 out of 644).

- A city-provided list of 48 vehicles associated with Transportation Network Companies, companies such as Uber and Lyft for instance, found nearly 23% had outstanding recalls (11 out of 48). A city spokesperson said these cars did not specifically identify which company they worked for in the city database and only identified their company type.

- Uber and Lyft obtained temporary restraining orders that blocked KING 5 from reviewing information that directly linked any VINs provided by the city to for-hire vehicles who identified specifically as contractors of either company.  KING 5 will contest the court orders at a hearing early next month.

- Washington state largely leaves inspection requirements for licensing up to local governments. However, Brad Benfield, a spokesperson with the Department of Licensing said KING 5's questions about the number of outstanding recalls in for-hire vehicles were, "Interesting. Something that might deserve a look."

- While Seattle requires vehicles-for-hire to pass uniform safety inspections by an approved mechanic, the city does not specifically ask whether the vehicle applying for a certificate to operate in the city has outstanding recalls as part of that evaluation.

- KING 5 talked to three mechanics certified by Seattle to perform inspections of for-hire vehicles who said they do not run the VIN of vehicles they inspect for recalls because the city does not require it.

"That's the wrinkle," said mechanic David Eames of Pittman Automotive Services.

Eames does not perform inspections on for-hire vehicles, but he does have a concern about the lack of recalls being completed.

"The city needs to step up the ordinance and say, 'Look you want to use a vehicle for service. You have to run that VIN,'" Eames said. "It's an issue that should be dealt with, because if the worst happens, someone gets killed because of a defect. Then you become reactive instead of proactive. If it saves on life, it's worth it."

Seattle declined a request for an interview but indicated in a statement that it is evaluating what authority it has to regulate recalls at the local level, as a result of the KING 5 investigation.

"The City is looking into whether any federal law precludes regulation at the local level of recalls on the for-hire industry, including taxis, for-hire vehicles, and transportation network company vehicles. Should none exist, in our commitment to safety, the City is open to exploring ways to address the issue of recalls within our current program that already requires extensive annual safety inspections. If we were to implement additional oversight, like any new rule, the City would seek input from the industry during development and prior to adoption and implementation," said spokesperson Julie Moore.

Seattle's taxi union, Teamsters Local Union No. 117, also responded to KING 5's investigation by distributing a notice to its members encouraging them to check their vehicles for recalls and to get the work done.

"Safety is our priority," the notice stated.

For taxis, Flat Rate in Seattle had the highest percentage of vehicles in its fleet registered with the city with outstanding recalls at a rate of nearly 51%. However, Yellow Cab had the highest total number of vehicles registered with the city with recalls at 712. Just over 39% of Yellow Cab vehicles had an outstanding recall, according to the data obtained by KING 5.

None of the companies would sit down with KING 5 for an interview, and only three provided a statement.

"Orange Cab taxi vehicles are owned by independent owners and contractors. If there is a recall the owners are the one who is being notified. Orange Cab will only allow taxi vehicles which pass the annual technical safety inspection to be on the road. Every year the taxi vehicle goes through annual technical safety inspection and if they pass they will be on the road. The goal of the entire company is to provide a superior level of service to its customers in the Greater Seattle-King County area while maintaining high standards of customer service, safety, and satisfaction. As a transport service company, we strictly follow and apply the inspection policy which is set by King County and the City of Seattle. We also have a company policy for drivers which they must follow and apply. Our main goal is to provide timely, safe and efficient service to our customers. Safety is our number one goal. When we receive any complaints from customers we will take remedial and disciplinary action on time," said Tadesse Woldearegaye, acting general manager of the Orange Cab Company in a statement.

"Uber works hard to help protect both riders and drivers. In Seattle, each vehicle operating on our platform is required to go through a 21-point safety inspection by an ASE-certified mechanic during the onboarding process and then each year moving forward as long as a driver is active. We also provide resources to our driver-partners encouraging them to check for open recalls and perform routine maintenance on their vehicles," said Uber Spokesperson Nathan Hambley in a statement.

"Turning over a list of VIN numbers of vehicles on our platform could compromise the privacy of our drivers. We also view that information as competitive data, as it could be used to assemble a list of our drivers," Hambley said.

VIN numbers are not private information and are publicly displayed on all vehicles on the driver's side windshield.

"Lyft requires a rigorous safety inspection of all drivers' vehicles before they are permitted to operate on our platform. Our drivers in Seattle must have their vehicles inspected by an ASE certified, master mechanic that has also been reviewed and approved by the City of Seattle regulators. There is a short list of these inspectors found on the Seattle gov website. The mechanics do a full 19-point inspection which includes inspecting the brakes, emergency brakes, brake pads, steering mechanism, windshield, rear window, other glass, windshield wipers, headlights, tail lights, turn signals, stop lights, front seat adjustment, doors, horn, speedometer, bumpers, muffler and exhaust system, tires and tread depth, interior and exterior rear view mirrors, and seat belts. Drivers are further required to have annual checks, using the same 19-point inspection, to ensure that their vehicles meet industry safety standards and all applicable state department of motor vehicle requirements. Finally, Lyft drivers use their personal vehicles to drive on the platform—the same car they use in their daily lives, driving their kids to school or friends around town. Drivers, therefore, have a strong personal incentive to make sure their car is in a safe operating condition," said Lyft Director of Communications Adrian Durbin in a statement.

INTERACTIVE: Recalls by type of malfunction

In New York City: "Since the universe of vehicles used for taxicabs in New York City is fairly limited, we've always found it more efficient to work directly with the manufacturers, ensuring both that they have accurate information on our licensees to support their outreach efforts," said Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for Public Affairs for the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission. "This also allows us to request and receive from them a list of satisfied recall repairs from among our licensees."

Despite that, a spot check of 200 for-hire vehicles in New York City found:

- 27% had outstanding recalls, including some for Takata airbag inflators and Toyota accelerators.

- A large number of them (13%) were Ford Motor Co. vehicles facing a recall over steering columns that could fall apart because of corrosion.

- 3% of vehicles had more than one outstanding recall; one vehicle had five outstanding recalls going all the way back to 2011.

- 20% of the taxis checked have recalls issued by manufacturers at least two years ago.

In Tampa: Neither the city nor Hillsborough County has any regulations requiring taxis to keep current with recalls. In checking the VINs of the city's 588 taxis, WTSP-TV found:

- 20% of the taxis had outstanding recalls, most for ignition/engine shutoff issues or other safety issues.

- Six out of 24 Lyft and Uber vehicles spot-checked also had outstanding recalls. That's 25% or about 1 in 4.

- When the city's largest taxi company, Yellow Cab, was presented with the information about the recalls, company attorney Seth Mills said, "We haven't seen the data. We can't trust what you're telling us."

- Six weeks after WTSP-TV provided Yellow Cab with the list of vehicles with outstanding recalls, the company claimed every one had been repaired.  However, according to NHTSA, only half of the recalls were fixed. Yellow Cab was unable to provide any documentation to back up their claim that all had been fixed.

In Houston: TV station KHOU did a spot check of 80 for-hire vehicles, including cabs, Uber and Lyft cars. They found:

- Nearly 34% all of the for-hire vehicles had outstanding recalls (27 out of 80).

- Nearly 48% of taxis checked had outstanding recalls (19 out of 40).

- 20% of Uber vehicles had outstanding recalls (8 out of 40).

In San Francisco: Taxis are required to be "maintained in a safe working condition" and are inspected annually if the odometer is less than 200,000 miles. They are inspected every six months if vehicle mileage exceeds 200,000 miles. Paul Rose, chief spokesman for the city's Municipal Transportation Agency, said in an email, "Recalls would be covered in the six-month or yearly check. If there is an immediate recall request, then companies would have to adhere to that."

In Chicago: Taxi medallion license holders must keep their vehicles "in an undamaged and safe condition," said Angel Hawthorne, spokesperson for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, in an email. Hawthorne said the license holder "is responsible for ensuring the vehicle is in compliance with manufacturer recall notices."

In Washington, D.C.:  Vehicles are inspected by the city once a year and will be banned from use if found to be "mechanically unsafe, improperly equipped, or otherwise unfit to be operated," but a check for outstanding recalls is not specified in regulations cited by Neville Waters, spokesman for the city's Department of For-Hire Vehicles.

In Los Angeles: Although the city can take a vehicle immediately out of service if it is found to be operating in an unsafe manner, officials are not specifically reviewing records to see if taxis are up to date with all recall work. Depending on the type of defect, said L.A. Department of Transportation spokesman Russell Hasan in an email, removal from service could involve unresolved recall issues.

Additionally, taxicab companies are required to continuously update and maintain all maintenance and repair records. City officials have the right to examine these records upon request, Hasan said.

Why Does It Matter?

Many of these for-hire vehicles face recalls for serious problems. Several have recalled Takata airbag inflators in them; the inflators can explode with too much force, turning some airbag parts into shrapnel that can be launched into the passenger cabin.

Eleven people in the U.S. have been killed as a result of these airbag inflators, the federal government says. This massive recall is particularly difficult for service providers and regulators because millions of vehicles are being recalled before there are replacement parts available to fix them.

Other issues involved in recalls include problems with the software that controls when and how forcefully airbags deploy, spare tires that could break loose and more.

What Can Consumers Do?

If you're getting into a cab, there's not much you can do immediately except following proper procedure to stay safe: Sit in the backseat, belt yourself in and pay attention to what your driver is doing.

Beyond that, consumers can ask local officials — which is typically where for-hire vehicles are regulated — to create rules to ensure that recall work is done promptly by vehicle owners.

Finally, consumers can use this opportunity to check to see if their vehicles have any outstanding recalls.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story contained an information graphic. We removed it after finding at least one error in it. The graphic will be restored once we've double checked it.

 

Copyright 2016 KING


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