Opinion: ‘Consumer-protection’ proposal gives false sense of security

Writing effective public policy is about more than having the right intentions; it’s about having the right approach.

Details matter in policy. In fact, details often define the difference between a law that will work and one that won’t. Such is the case with AB 121 — a bill that purports to protect consumers by requiring that car dealers provide histories of their cars and allow consumers to read theses histories.  The bill’s supporters claim that consumers will be able to look in the windshield area and read all they need to know about a car’s past.  This, we are told, will prevent car dealers from hiding any potentially bad information about the car.

Sounds good.  Except that it won’t work.  At least not the way it’s written.

First, AB 1215 gives consumers a false sense of security.  The bill mandates that car dealers only obtain an NMVTIS vehicle history report.  There are several problems with this approach. The NMVTIS system which was never indented for use as a sales tool for sellers of used cars.  Instead, its best use is to assist government and law enforcement in fighting vehicle fraud.  In fact, the acronym stands for “National Motor Vehicle Title Information System” and it’s found on the Department of Justice website. 

Simply put, this system may do some good for police, but it does little for a consumer wanting to know how many wrecks a certain car has been in.

The NMVTIS lacks any information about accidents that didn’t require a salvage or total loss brand.  It also lacks information on repairs, service, maintenance, and even airbag deployment warnings.  In other words, the NMVTIS tells the consumer very little about the history of the car and certainly nothing of its safety.  Yet AB 1215 supporters claim that this bill will protect consumers who are shopping for a used car. 

That’s not only false advertising, that’s a false sense of security.

Second, AB 1215 stacks the deck against consumers by focusing on the NMVTIS.  It actually encourages dealers to use the NMVTIS report as a protection against liability. Ironically, other more comprehensive and more accurate reports are available, and these reports can give consumers more information they need about a car’s wrecks, repairs, and maintenance.  If the goal is empowering consumers with information, why shouldn’t this proposed law encourage the use of other, more complete lists?

Finally, AB 1215 is not only ineffective, it’s expensive.  Certain fees are doubled and are explicitly required not to be listed as government fees. And who will pay for these fees?  The consumers will in the form of additional fees on top of the vehicle price.

In short, AB 1215 could actually harm overall vehicle safety standards, the legitimacy of the used car industry and the lives of everyone traveling on the roads alongside potentially dangerous vehicles.  It claims to empower consumers; but it doesn’t give them the information they need to make the best decision possible.

Protecting consumers from unsafe cars is a worthy goal that we all share.  This state has a long history of looking out for the consumers and those protections should extend to when a used car is being purchased.  Clearly, protecting used car consumers is the right thing to do; but let’s make sure we do it the right way.

At Hispanic 100, we encourage a culture of leadership and accountability, particularly in the Hispanic business community. AB 1215 smacks in the face of this movement by creating loopholes for bad business and stifles transparency. However, the bill can be improved. One simple solution would be to amend this bill so that dealers can offer consumers reports other than the NMVTIS.  This one change would transform AB 1215 from a bill that sounds good to a bill that will do good for consumers all across California.

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