The editors of Edmunds.com's online auto forum recently noticed a wave of complaints about engine fires in older-model General Motors vehicles, primarily in vehicles equipped with a 3.8-liter V6 engine produced by the automaker.
What caught their interest was that these were all vehicles that had been recalled at least three years ago, yet people were complaining now.
The auto information company said the surge in complaints highlights a problem with recalls: Many owners of the affected cars don't bother to get them fixed.
An analysis of two GM recalls examined by Edmunds showed a "completion rate" of just 52.5% as of December 2011. GM says that its recalls generally reach a completion rate of about 70%. No other automaker would provide Edmunds with a completion rate for its recalls.
Often these unrepaired vehicles are sold to unsuspecting buyers.
"The current system does not make it easy for car owners — especially used-car owners — to know if their vehicles are up to date on recall services," Edmunds.com Senior Editor John O'Dell said. "And since there's only so much the manufacturers can do to reach out to car owners, the responsibility for ensuring that a car has been checked for recalls ultimately rests with individual owners."
O'Dell said that used-car buyers should register their vehicles with the automakers to make sure they're in the loop on any existing and future recalls.
They should also look at the U.S. Department of Transportation's http://www.safercar.org, a database where they can see if particular models were part of a recall. A system that would enable people to use vehicle identification numbers to check if specific recalled cars have been repaired is under development, but there is no word on when it will be ready.
Edmunds noted that there are no laws that require a car's owner to notify potential buyers that the car being sold is the subject of a recall.
The auto information company also said that although automakers send out letters of notification, the vehicle owners might have moved and not left forwarding addresses. During two years of GM recalls ending in 2009, almost 8% of the notifications were not delivered to owners, Edmunds reported.