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Millions of cars recalled for dangerous airbags. Why used-car dealerships can still sell them to you. | 11Alive Investigates

Millions of cars are under recall for Takata airbags But, every single one of them can be sold on a used-car lot, unfixed without you knowing.

ATLANTA — John Hilley considers himself lucky. 

A minor car crash left him with major injuries to his face. A piece of metal sliced through his chin.

"I could touch it with my tongue," he described. "It almost killed me. It could have killed me." 

Another piece of metal hit his jaw and exposed his bone. 

The metal came shooting out of his Takata airbag. It's a type of airbag that has injured hundreds of people across the country and killed at least 19. 

Tens of millions of cars in the United States still have defective Takata airbags and are under recall. But, every single one of them can be sold on a used-car lot, unfixed without you knowing.

They can sell them to you even in cases when that recall has cost drivers their lives.

We found multiple cars with open Takata recalls for sale right here in Georgia. From Smyrna to Newnan, Griffin to Suwanee and everywhere in between.

“It’s not right and they’re putting their lives at risk, their families'' lives, their kids’ lives,” Hilley said.

Hilley's attorney, Andrew Felix, argues it's an unfair practice.

"They’re taking your money for a product," Felix said. "It should be sold with something you can trust and knowing it’s going to work for what you paid for.”

Other recall issues to look out for

There is no law forcing used-car dealerships to fix those issues before selling the car, Felix said. Takata is far from the only recall issue drivers should worry about.

“I remember my dad telling me he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t see," Kimberly Pierce said describing the moments right before her father died in a crash. 

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His 2017 Kia Forte's engine and brakes failed while he was driving, she said, and the airbag never deployed.  

In another case, a 2017 Kia Sportage burst into flames while idling on the road.

“I could have not made it out,” said Navada Stucking, who only had seconds to escape from her car.

She was stopped at a red light waiting to turn when her car sparked.

“The flames were coming out from under the hood of the car,” she described. 

The makes and models of both of those cars are currently under recall. 11Alive Investigates found used-car dealerships are still selling them with those issues unfixed.

Under recall, still for sale

We looked into more than a dozen used-car dealers in the Atlanta-Metro area. Every single one had at least one car on its lot under recall. Some recalls were for cars that were deemed "not safe to drive."

We went to one dealership in Lithia Springs selling 20 cars with open recalls. Three of them had urgent warnings.

Credit: WXIA

“It says 'Urgent, do not drive this vehicle,'” 11Alive Investigator Kristin Crowley tells the worker, pointing to a recalled Mercedes on the lot.

“Ehhh, those are as you know, news, somebody want to make a scene,” he said.

“You think that this isn’t legitimate?” we asked.

The worker doesn’t answer.

“It’s from the government. The federal government is saying don’t drive it,” Crowley said. 

“Somebody has a benefit out of it,” he replied.

We ask the salesman if he’s still going to try and sell the car or if he will get it fixed. He responds that he will call “his guy."

"This is not illegal" 

Pierce called the resale of recalled cars upsetting.

"It’s a tragic thing that something like that isn’t illegal,” she said, reflecting on the fact that someone can purchase a car with unfixed issues just like the one her father died in.

Credit: WXIA

Pierce’s attorney, Rita Tucker Williams, said used-car dealerships could be liable in civil court for selling a car they know is unsafe. But, if they’re not required to check for recalls, they can say they had no knowledge of an issue.

It's up to the people and politicians to spark change, Williams said. 

“If the people, the community, the public speaks up and says 'No, that’s not okay,' and that’s what you’re doing here today, raising awareness that this is not illegal,” Williams said.

Some lawmakers in Congress proposed a bill to make it illegal for used-car dealers to sell a vehicle with an open recall. That was more than a year ago. It’s still sitting in committee. 

Credit: WXIA

“It’s crazy how they can let these cars go off the lots to these people knowing that there’s a problem and they just let it go anyway,” Hilley said.

Jonathan Salmeron, a used-car salesman, said preventing the sale of recalled cars is not the answer.

“For every 10 you get I’m sure there’s about 6 or 7 of them that have an active, open recall,” Salmeron said. 

He argued most dealers try to get the issue fixed with the manufacturer. But, he said, it’s not always possible.  

“They’re like, 'Hey, we’re about 2 months out on this recall' or they don’t’ have the parts available on them. I remember I called to check to see if I could get one in and they didn’t have the parts available,” Salmeron said.

That car was sold without the recall issue fixed, but Salmeron said the customer was fully aware of that. 

He suggests a better law would require dealers to notify their customers if a vehicle is under recall before they sell it to them.

How to check your car's status

Here’s what you can to do stay safe. 

Every vehicle has a VIN number. You can find yours in the driver’s side windshield, or typically online if your car is posted on a website. 

Just enter your VIN number into the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration database https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls.

It will tell you if your vehicle has an open recall.

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