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Auto and consumer groups want federal car-title database

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ With thousands of cars and trucks damaged by Hurricane Katrina entering the marketplace, Congress should create a federal database to track such vehicles to prevent them from being sold to unsuspecting consumers, industry officials said Wednesday.

Auto dealers and consumer groups said varying car title laws across the country have allowed some unscrupulous dealers and wholesalers to sell flood-damaged, used vehicles that have corroded wiring as well as defective brakes and air bags.

Katrina damaged nearly 600,000 vehicles, the groups estimated, and thousands have been refurbished and sold to consumers in recent months.

``Consumers have no reliable way to know the true history of these cars,'' said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

A vehicle's title contains its history, including damage from flooding and crashes, but states have different laws about what must be included in the title and use different language to describe the damage. The groups called for a national database accessible to dealers and consumers to learn about a vehicle's past.

They told a panel of the House Commerce and Energy Committee that some dealers and chop shops rebuild wrecked or flood-damaged cars and then obtain titles in other states that do not mention the damage. The cars are sold at huge profits while consumers are duped into thinking they've bought a used vehicle in good condition.

In some cases, the air bags have been stuffed with rags, the electronic and safety systems are corroded and the brakes are faulty, posing safety hazards to all motorists.

``No one wants to discover that the car of their dreams they just drove off the lot spent some time as a waterlogged submarine,'' said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.

David Regan, vice president of legislative affairs for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said his organization supports measures to create a national online database that would allow consumers to search a vehicle's title history.

The problem is not limited to Katrina vehicles, he said, estimating that 5 million vehicles were deemed ``totaled'' by insurance companies last year.

Legislation dealing with car thefts in 1992 created a national online motor vehicle title history system, but only about 28 states are participating because of funding issues, said Glenn Turner, chief of staff of the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

Turner said more than half of the vehicles on the road are included in the system, but that could increase to about 8 in 10 vehicles with the addition of data from California, New York, Illinois and Michigan.
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