MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Two years ago, NPR exposed efforts by insurers and others in the used car industry to block the creation of a national car-titling system. It's a database that would allow car buyers to find out about a car's history, specifically, whether it was wrecked or stolen. Now the Justice Department is about to launch the titling system. NPR's Jeff Brady reported the original story and has this update.
JEFF BRADY: Buying a used car without knowing there's hidden damage from a previous wreck or even a flood can be a big pain. There's bound to be huge repair bills. But for Robert Ellsworth, the cost was even higher. His son was killed riding in such a car.
Mr. ROBERT ELLSWORTH: He was a passenger in a salvaged vehicle that had a head-on collision, and we later learned that the air bags did not deploy and were actually stuffed with paper.
BRADY: A car like that should have a warning on the title that says it was wrecked and repaired. But each state has different titling laws, and that creates a loophole that scam artists take advantage of. They'll re-title a damaged car in a series of states with different standards until the warning is gone. The practice is called "title-washing."
With a national car-titling system, it'll more difficult to do that because when one state reports a car is damaged, all the states will have the same information. The details will be attached to the vehicle identification number. The Department of Justice estimates the national system will save consumers up to $11 billion a year. So tomorrow, consumer advocates like Kansas City attorney Bernard Brown will be celebrating when the new system is officially launched.
Mr. BERNARD BROWN (Lawyer, Kansas City): It's a red-letter day.
BRADY: One that was 17 years in the making. Congress created the system in 1992, but it never got off the ground because of opposition from insurance companies, businesses that issue car history reports, auto dealers, junkyard owners. Just about the only fans were law enforcement agencies and consumer advocates like Brown.
Mr. BROWN: It took all of that. No amount of persuasion would do. Foot-dragging, politics - it's quite an awful story. But at least we're here now.
BRADY: Tomorrow isn't the end, though. The national car titling system still is missing some key data from insurance companies and junkyards. And only about half the states are submitting their data. Jim Burch is with the Department of Justice.
Mr. JIM BURCH (Acting Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Department of Justice): It will take us some time to get to the point where, you know, everyone is complying and all of the data is in the system. But once we reach that point, consumers should feel very comfortable that the critical data is in the system and available to them.
BRADY: Companies like AutoCheck and Carfax offer car history information now. Larry Gamache with Carfax says the government database is limited only to cars that have been totaled. Gamache says it'd be nice to also have information about fender benders and less serious wrecks.
Mr. LARRY GAMACHE (Spokesman, Carfax): The big nut for all of us to crack will be insurance claims information, and the insurance industry does not seem amenable to sharing claims information with anybody.
BRADY: A spokesman for the insurance industry says doing that would cost a lot of money and that would have to be passed onto policyholders. Consumer advocates say it'd be worth it. It looks like another battle over the new national car-titling system may be shaping up. Jeff Brady, NPR News.