The number of vehicles recalled in the U.S. reached a record high last year, but even as important safety recalls get more attention in the U.S., drivers often fail to get their vehicles repaired. That means millions of people in the U.S. are driving, buying or selling potentially dangerous vehicles.

Research released earlier this year from Carfax indicates that more than 46 million cars nationwide have at least one safety recall that's never been fixed, and 5 million of those vehicles were bought and sold in 2014. That is an enormous increase over the 2013 figures, when Carfax estimate there were just 3 million cars on the road with an open safety recall.

One in three minivans and one in five SUVs has an unfixed recall, according to the report. California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania have the highest number of unfixed recalls. States with the highest ratios of unfixed recalled cars include West Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, Wyoming and New Jersey.

“America’s cavalier response to manufacturer safety recalls is putting lives at risk,” said Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax. “Every morning millions of people drive to work, school and other places in a potential ticking time bomb. Fires, crashes and serious injury are just a few consequences of letting recalls go unfixed. The minor inconvenience that comes from having a recall fixed pales in comparison to what can happen if you don’t.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires automakers to quickly notify regulators and owners when a defect is uncovered. But that doesn't mean that owners actually get the repairs made. A 2011 audit by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that less than 70 percent of vehicles under recall were actually repaired.

The problem is only getting worse as the pace and size of recalls increases. There were 64 million vehicles targeted by recalls in 2014, twice the previous record set in 2004. The recent Takata airbag recall has thrown this problem into sharp relief.

In that case, 17 million vehicles manufactured between 2002 and 2008 by 10 different automakers were affected. The airbags could potentially deploy explosively, injuring or killing drivers.

Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Takata would receive a $14,000 per day fine for failing to fully cooperate with the NHTSA's investigation into the defective airbags. Late last year, NHTSA issued two Special Orders to Takata requiring the company to provide documentation and other material relating to the agency’s ongoing investigation.

A few days after announcing the fines, the DOT also issued an order requiring Takata to preserve all air bag inflators removed in the recall process to use as evidence for both NHTSA's investigation and private litigation cases.

Reaching out to drivers

OEMs are upping their efforts to improve recall response rates, particularly for the Takata airbags. Chrysler, Ford and Toyota have all reached out to drivers via direct mail and phone campaigns. Honda, meanwhile, has launched a massive advertising campaign to improve recall response. According to the company, as of March of this year only 1.1 million of the 8 million defective airbag systems in Hondas in the U.S. had been fixed.

The automaker is spending millions on ads in 120 newspapers and for radio spots in 110 markets. The company is also sponsoring custom Facebook posts that will appear in owners' timelines. Honda reported it was unable to locate nearly 18,000 vehicle owners affected by the recall.

The federal government is also considering how to deal with unaddressed safety repairs. In February, Secretary Foxx, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind, elected officials, representatives from the rental car industry, and consumer safety advocates asked Congress to pass legislation that would require rental car agencies and used car dealers to fix safety defects before renting or selling vehicles subject to a recall.

The GROW AMERICA Act (a massive, six-year infrastructure and transportation spending bill) includes provisions that would require rental car agencies to remedy safety defects under recall, and require used car dealers to do the same before selling the vehicles. New cars have to be fixed before sale under current law.

“Every vehicle under an open safety recall should be repaired as soon as possible,” Foxx said in a prepared statement. “Requiring rental car agencies and used car dealers to fix defective vehicles before renting is a common-sense solution that would make our roads safer. Safety advocates and the rental car industry have taken a stand for safety, and we need Congress to do so as well.”

The Obama Administration also announced a proposed increase to NHTSA's budget in February, which would increase the agency's defect investigation budget to $31.3 million, approximately triple the current budget.

Other lawmakers hope to force states and consumers to take action. In March, U.S. Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced legislation that would require state departments of motor vehicles and registration agencies to notify vehicle owners about open safety recalls. The Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act would also require owners to complete all safety recalls before renewing their registration.

“Unrepaired safety defects endanger everyone on America’s roadways. Important recall notices can get bogged down with legalese, and busy consumers can miss a lifesaving update,” Blumenthal said. “This legislation provides a common-sense avenue to ensure every driver is reminded and encouraged to make the necessary repairs and keep unsafe cars off the roads.”

Exceptions would be granted if the owner wasn't notified of the recall during the renewal process, if the manufacturing lacked the parts to complete the recall, or if the owner demonstrates that they had no reasonable opportunity to fulfill the recall. The DMV could then grant a temporary registration for up to 60 days.

The RECALL Act will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate, and if passed would pose significant logistics issues for state DMVs and drivers attempting to verify repairs.

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<p>The number of vehicles recalled in the U.S. reached a record high last year, but even as important safety recalls get more attention in the U.S., drivers often fail to get their vehicles repaired. That means millions of people in the U.S. are driving, buying or selling potentially dangerous vehicles.</p>
<p>aftermarket, auto parts manufacturers, auto recalls, warranty repairs, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, NHTSA, Carfax, Takata, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx</p>