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California lawmakers OK bill to make vehicle histories more accessible

The state will cancel its contract with a firm that charges $30 for the information and offer the facts online for much less money.

September 05, 2009|Evan Halper

SACRAMENTO — The state has been blocking cheap online access to used-car histories, forcing consumers to pay $30 to a private firm for fast information that is widely used to avoid buying a lemon -- and is readily available from many states for about $2.50.

A contract the state signed with the owner of Carfax has left California behind the curve in providing such data to car buyers. But lawmakers this week passed and sent to the governor a bill that a calls for the state to make vehicle histories more accessible.

And officials at the California Department of Motor Vehicles now say they will end the contract early and begin making the information available cheaply online by the end of the year.

"We don't think a private company should be making a profit off keeping public information from the public," said Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), who introduced the bill.

DMV officials said the state contracted with Carfax's parent, R.L. Polk & Co., in April 2008 to get help in providing a federal database with millions of California vehicle title histories. The state is required to provide information to that database under a law passed by Congress in 1992.

The sheer volume of records, along with technological problems created by the state's computer systems, made it impossible for California to contribute to the database without costly outside aid, DMV officials said.

Polk provided its services at a discount. In exchange, the state agreed not to join the 14 other states that make vehicle histories accessible online.

"The way we negotiated this with Polk is: Our data was available to any other DMV and to law enforcement," said Dennis Clear, assistant director for legislation at the DMV.

Consumers who wanted the information could get it from Carfax for $30.

Vehicle histories typically help buyers avoid refurbished cars and trucks that are unsafe because their damage may be hidden. Such vehicles may have been declared a loss by insurance companies after accidents, or in the wake of natural disasters such as the flooding that occurred in Hurricane Katrina.

"We depend on our cars to protect us in a crash, yet some of these cars are so damaged they are providing no protection at all," said Rosemary Shahan, founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in Sacramento. "They are missing air bags, they crumple, sometimes they split in two in an accident."

The federal database, called the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, was created to improve the tracking of histories for cars and trucks as they move over state lines. Title histories note when a car has been declared a total loss or has been salvaged from a flood. They can alert a buyer if the odometer has been tampered with.

DMV officials said such information is already available to consumers for $5 if they fish out the form on the agency's website, print it, mail it in and wait for a response. Most car buyers, however, need the information immediately, when they are about to make an offer on a vehicle.

For years, consumer advocates have been pushing in the courts for California to make vehicle histories more accessible. But delays in Washington and then at the state level have kept the national database, to which the public information requests are routed, from including all 50 states.

Consumer advocates interpret recent court decisions to mean that California's DMV must already provide the vehicle data to the public online. Even so, DMV officials wrote a letter of opposition to the Yamada bill, AB 647, signaling that the governor may not sign it. If he doesn't, there will be less pressure on the DMV to provide the online information quickly.

Clear said Yamada's bill includes language that would make California vulnerable to further lawsuits. Consumer activists accuse the state of dragging its feet.

Meanwhile, the Carfax parent's contract with California is being canceled, said company officials. But they said they are confident that consumers will still purchase their reports even after much of the key safety information is made available online by the state.

Larry Gamache, communication director for Carfax noted that reports from the Virginia-based company offer substantially more information than title history. They include information from police reports, repair shops, towing companies, smog facilities and other sources not included in the national database.

"We have information from 23,000 sources, most of which will never be included in that database," Gamache said. "And we are working day and night to add new sources."

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evan.halper@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Vehicle histories on the cheap

These states provide vehicle history information online at little cost to consumers:

Arizona

Florida

Iowa

Indiana

Kentucky

Massachusetts

Montana

Nevada

New Hampshire

Ohio

South Dakota

Virginia

Washington

Wisconsin

Source: http://nmvtis.gov/

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