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Safety Questioned on 'Used and Abused' Cars

Safety Questioned on 'Used and Abused' Cars

CREATED Sep 20, 2006
(Story created: 2/8/05)

Every year, more than 11,000 seriously wrecked cars wind up back on Tennessee's roads. The question is, how safe are those rebuilt wrecks? NewsChannel 5 put them to the test.

When a car has been totaled in a wreck, it's hard to believe it could ever look like new again.

And some wonder whether a car with significant damage can ever be safe to drive again. 

These are cars that were so seriously damaged, they were declared unsafe and only good for parts or scrap.

But when we sent undercover shoppers to used car lots on Nolensville Road, the dealers who sell these rebuilt wrecks insisted there was nothing wrong with them.

Our shoppers asked the dealers if the cars were safe to drive.

"Why not?" one responded.

"Of course," another replied.

"It's perfect," a third insisted.

Most of the dealers also tried to convince our undercover shoppers that the damage from the wrecks had been minor.

One salesman told our shopper that a 2003 Pontiac Sunfire was hardly damaged.

"It had a small accident on the front. I think it had some scratches too," he told her.

But when we asked a mechanic to check it out, he found one problem after another, including missing parts, cosmetic damage to the body, a cracked headlight filled with water, as well as major structural damage underneath the car.

When Bobby Armstrong, owner of Ultimate Tire, took a look at the back end of the car, he found that the trunk didn't line up with the side panel.

"It's almost like the whole thing's been twisted," Armstrong added.

That's not at all what the salesman told us. After he insisted that it had been in a "small" accident, our shopper asked, "So was it just like a small fender bender?"

"Yeah, yeah," he replied. "It didn't have no frame damage. It had no frame damage."

But Armstrong told us, "When you've got this much damage into the body and the frame rails of the car, that's a major collision. That's not a fender bender."

And Jennifer Head, the previous owner of the car and the one who was driving it when it was wrecked, confirms the accident was no fender bender.

She says her car hit some ice and slid off the road and then plowed into not one but two culverts.

"I hit very hard," Head says. "I was going probably 55 when I hit the ditch. There was a 'for sale' sign. I hit that. The whole car was bent."

Head couldn't believe that it had been rebuilt and now was for sale. She told us, "I wouldn't drive it again. I don't think it would be safe."

And experts agree.

They say a car is like an aluminum can. It's tough and can take just about anything. But after it's severely damaged, even if it's rebuilt, the slightest accident can cause the whole thing to crumple.

Especially on a car like the Pontiac Sunbird, which our mechanic found still had thousands of dollars worth of damage from the wreck that had never been repaired.

"I think somebody just did as economical as possible as quick repairs just to get it on the used car lot for the next poor person to get to buy it and assume it's in great order," Armstrong said.

And it turns out there are thousands of car just like that on the road, even though the state inspects these cars after they're rebuilt and before they can be sold again.

We talked with one of the state's lead inspectors and asked him, "You don't take these cars out for a test drive?" Kraus asked Special Agent In Charge Jimmy Hester of with the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

"Oh, no," Hester answered. "No. Not at all."

Hester and his team of inspectors are not trained in auto body repair. They're criminal investigators and the only thing they look for during their inspection is whether the car or any of its parts are stolen.

"So no one from the state makes sure that these cars are actually safe to be on the road?" Kraus asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Hester said.

When we took the Pontiac Sunfire back to the dealer where we'd gotten it, salesman Luis Mendez informed us, "We're not doing anything illegal."

And he's right. Dealers can sell these rebuilt wrecks. The question is do you really want to buy one?

"The thing is the car is safe," Mendez said. "It's not going to break down on you or something."

But Armstrong had a different view.

"I wouldn't purchase this vehicle for someone in my family. I'm not too sure it should be on the streets."