ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 29, 2016)—Maryland drivers will benefit from much better access to safety and defect data about their cars when one of the nation's most consumer-friendly state safety disclosure laws goes into effect on Sat., Oct. 1. The law, passed as part of HB 525 by the General Assembly last April, prohibits carmakers from punishing dealers for sharing safety- and defect-related communications from auto manufacturers with any customer who has purchased or serviced his or her car at the dealership.
"The law lets dealers do what they ought to do: Stand up for the safety of their customers," says Jack Fitzgerald, the president of Fitzgerald Auto Malls and an advocate who has worked for decades to make MD's transportation laws more fair and transparent for consumers and dealers alike.
"It's just wrong for carmakers to demand that dealers withhold important safety information from the customers who rely on us to sell and service their cars," Fitzgerald notes.
The new law bars carmakers from taking "any adverse action against a dealer" for sharing any communication that impacts "motor vehicle safety, durability, reliability, or performance" with their customers. While other states allow dealers to share such information in response to an inquiry by a customer, Maryland's law breaks new ground by enabling dealers to take the initiative to provide this information to their customers.
Taking a big bite out of the "gag rule"
Automakers regularly share information about safety problems and defects in their cars with dealers in warranty policy updates, technical service bulletins, and other communications. But many carmakers forbid dealers from sharing that information with their customers unless they ask about the problem mentioned in that communication or in other narrow circumstances.
Under this "gag rule," dealers can be punished, for instance, if they tell a customer who comes in for an oil change about a dangerous brake or other problem they know about from communications with the manufacturer but the driver hasn't yet noticed or asked about. That practice helps carmakers save money on warranty repairs but can put drivers at risk.
"The 'gag rule' often keeps drivers from understanding important safety issues and manufacturing defects that undermine the value and durability of their cars until or unless the problem prompts a recall," Consumer Auto Executive Director Franz Schneiderman notes. "Letting dealers share information about these problems as soon as they learn it will help drivers get their cars fixed sooner, stay safe on the road, and protect the value of the vehicles they rely on."
GM ignition switch tragedy underscores cost of the limiting information
The tragic failures of the defective ignition switches on millions of GM cars demonstrated in the most dramatic and deadly way the problems the 'gag rule' can cause for drivers. The giant carmaker first notified dealers of the problem in a now-infamous technical service bulletin issued in Dec. 2005.
But GM's rules don't allow dealers to share that information with customers unless they ask about the problem. So many drivers didn't know about the problem until GM finally began recalling the cars in March 2014, more than 8 years after issuing the initial bulletin. By that time, at least 174 people had died, and hundreds more seriously injured, in crashes caused by the defect in that 99-cent part.
One of the first victims of that tragedy was Amber Marie Rose, a 16-year old girl from Southern Maryland killed in a crash caused by an ignition switch failure in her new Chevy Cobalt in July 2005. Amber's birth mother, Laura Christian, has spent years rallying GM victims to fight for justice. She worked hard to pass the new disclosure law in her home state of MD.
"If we had known what GM knew about the defect in the car that took Amber's life, we never would have bought that car," Christian explains. "MD's new law gives dealers the ability to save lives by sharing that kind of critical information. I believe this law can be a model that will inspire other states to act to make life-saving information available to drivers across the country."
Strengthening access to data federal law insists should be public
Federal law makes clear that drivers have a right to have access to all communications from carmakers to dealers about safety and defect issues on their cars. Under new regulations published in the Federal Register in March, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now working to make those communications more fully available through its website (www.safercar.gov).
But few consumers know that this information is available through NHTSA, and advocates agree that the agency's dated website does not make that information easy to find. Maryland's new law will strongly strengthen access to this public information.
"It would be absurd for MD to allow carmakers to continue to threaten dealers for sharing information federal law says should be available to the public," Consumers Auto's Schneiderman notes. "We're glad to see NHTSA sharing more information but most drivers rely on their dealers to keep their cars safe and reliable on the road just as they rely on their doctors for important health information."
"Drivers need to be able to get that information directly from their dealers, and Maryland's new law is a big step forward in enabling them to get it," Schneiderman concludes.
Consumer Auto is a non-profit coalition of advocates, consumers and people in the auto industry who care about car safety working for greater fairness and transparency in auto sales and servicing. You can learn more about our work at www.consumerautomd.org.