If you call for a taxi, Lyft or Uber ride in this country, you have a 1-in-3 chance of getting into one that has not had its federally-mandated safety recall work completed, according to a national investigation by 10Investigates, TEGNA-owned 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 for taxis in major cities including New York, Tampa, Seattle and Houston, the investigation found:
• On average, anywhere from one in five (Tampa) to one in 2.5 (Seattle) for-hire vehicles whose vehicle identification number (VIN) we checked had at least one outstanding recall. Some of those recalls were issued five or more years ago, and include Takata airbag inflators,and Toyota accelerator recalls, among other significant issues.
• In most major cities with large taxi fleets, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., no specific regulations ensure that taxi owners stay current with recall work.
• In New York, where officials say they keep a strict eye on the safety of for-hire vehicles, our spot check of 200 found that 27 percent had at least one outstanding recall.
• Neither ride-sharing company Uber nor Lyft requires drivers ensure that their cars are current with recall work.
• Uber and Lyft also took KING-TV to court in Seattle to block the release of a public database with their vehicles’ identification numbers so they could be checked for outstanding recalls, arguing the information would compromise trade secrets and cause a “substantial and irreparable competitive disadvantage.”
“For passengers, it's really like playing the lottery,” said Kelsey Mays, Cars.com’s Senior Editor for Consumer Affairs. “When you're getting into these cars there's a 1-in-4 chance basically that these taxicabs might have an unfixed recall.”
Seattle attorney Catherine Clark, who practices in personal injury and commercial litigation, called the statistics startling.
“Just because the city does not take action on one, it does not relieve people of the responsibility to fix their vehicles,” Clark said.
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, 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.”
Recalls have become a large and growing issue for both automakers and consumers over the past few years, and federal officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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 car dealers from selling new cars with pending recalls for some time.
• 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.
What Did We Find?
Cities with large taxi populations take different approaches to how they regulate for-hire vehicles with outstanding recalls:
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, 10Investigates found:
• 20 percent of the taxis had outstanding recalls, most for ignition/engine shutoff issues or other safety issues.
• 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 10Investigates 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.
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 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 found:
• 27 percent had outstanding recalls, including some for Takata airbag inflators and Toyota accelerators.
• A large number of them (13 percent) were Ford Motor Co. vehicles facing a recall over steering columns that could fall apart because of corrosion.
• 3 percent of vehicles had more than one outstanding recall; one vehicle had five outstanding recalls going all the way back to 2011.
• 20 percent of the taxis checked have recalls issued by manufacturers at least two years ago.
Seattle: KING-TV checked the VINs of nearly 1,647 for-hire vehicles and found:
• Nearly 40 percent of for-hire vehicles had at least one open recall pending.
• 72 percent of the cars with outstanding recalls (1,188 out of 1,647) were Toyota Priuses, and those accounted for nearly 81 percent of the outstanding recalls (521 out of 644).
• A city-provided list of 48 vehicles associated with Transportation Network Companies, used by companies such as Uber and Lyft, found nearly 23 percent had outstanding recalls (11 out of 48). KING-TV was told by a city spokesperson that 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-TV 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 will contest the court orders at a hearing early next month.
• While the city requires vehicles for hire to pass uniform safety inspections by an approved mechanic, the city does not consider whether the vehicle applying for a certificate to operate in the city has outstanding recalls as part of that evaluation.
• “That’s the wrinkle,” said mechanic David Eames of Pittman Automotive Services. “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 number. 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 a life, it’s worth it.”
Houston: TV station KHOU did a spot check of 80 for-hire vehicles, including cabs, Uber and Lyft cars. They found:
• Nearly 34 percent all of for-hire vehicles had outstanding recalls (27 out of 80).
• Nearly 48 percent of taxis checked had outstanding recalls (19 out of 40).
• 20% of Uber vehicles had outstanding recalls (8 out of 40).
San Francisco: Taxis are required to be “maintained in a safe working condition” and are inspected annually if the odometer shows less than 200,000 miles, and 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Uber: The ride-sharing company doesn’t specifically require drivers to show they’re current with recall work. “We regularly provide resources to driver-partners and encourage them to check for recalls and to perform routine maintenance,” spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said in an email. However, after being contacted for this story, Uber sent this notice to drivers reminding them to check their vehicles for outstanding recalls.
Lyft: This ride-sharing company doesn’t require its “peer-to-peer” drivers to show they’re current with recall work. “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,” spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna said in an email.
“Drivers have a strong personal incentive to make sure their car is in a safe operating condition. In addition to a safety inspection, drivers make a continuous representation that their vehicle meets the industry safety standards and all applicable state department of motor vehicle requirements of its kind.”
Taxis: In Seattle, KING-TV reached out to more than a dozen taxi companies requesting comment and only the Orange Cab Company responded.
“Orange Cab taxi vehicles are owned by independent owners and contractors. If there is a recall the owners are the one 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. Our main goal is to provide timely, safe and efficient service to our customers. Safety is our number one goal,” said Tadesse Woldearegaye, acting general manager of Orange Cab.
Why Does It Matter?
Many of these for-hire vehicles we found 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 follow 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 officially — which is typically where for-hire vehicles are regulated — to create rules to ensure that recall work is done in a timely manner by vehicle owners.
Finally, consumers can use this opportunity to check to see if their own vehicles have any outstanding recalls here: www.tinyurl.com/CheckRecalls. Unfortunately, the rate of recalls fixed among consumer vehicles isn’t much better than for-hire vehicles, putting lives on the line due to unreliable parts.