There is no explicit federal requirement that sellers of used cars fix problems related to safety recalls, or even disclose the recalls, the way new-car dealers must. Efforts to introduce tougher laws for used cars have languished in Congress, under lobbying pressure from the used-car industry.
The more lax regulations for used-car safety affect a large swath of the population. Last year, more than 38 million used cars were sold across the country — more than twice as many as were sold new, according to the automotive information site Edmunds.com.
Auctions, whether by governments or dealers, represent the least regulated rung of the industry, often dealing in higher-risk cars that are sold to the most vulnerable consumers, said Bernard Brown, a consumer protection lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., who has closely followed auto auction companies.
“Auctions are where dealers who would be uncomfortable selling damaged and defective cars directly to their customers will unload to other dealers who do want to sell them,” he said.
“It would typically be dealers who sell to the less educated, less car-savvy, poorer, English-challenged, credit-challenged consumers,” Mr. Brown said.
While the country’s largest trade groups for sellers of used vehicles say they encourage their members to disclose and fix recalled vehicles, they stop short of requiring it.
“We certainly advise, from a best-practices standpoint, that if a fix is available then our dealers follow that process,” said Shaun Petersen, a senior vice president at the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association, a trade group whose members include used-car dealers. “And if a fix is not available, then certainly it’s in your best interest and best practice to disclose.”
Ms. Robles’s son, Jose Contreras, 26, bought his mother’s car a year ago from Ivan Henderson, a man he met playing pool.
Last month, during a fender-bender, the car’s airbag exploded, propelling metal parts that killed Ms. Robles, who worked the 5 a.m. shift as a breakfast attendant at a Hampton Inn.
“She was my best friend,” Mr. Contreras said of his mother, in text messages, from his home in Riverside. “Her grandkids were her world.”
Honda said it had sent out more than 20 notices since that model was first recalled in 2008, warning that its driver-side airbag could rupture.
Instead of being fixed, the Honda was resold at least three times since the recall — at auctions in 2010 and in 2015, then by Mr. Henderson, who bought the car at an auction then sold it to Mr. Contreras for $2,100.
The estimated trade-in value of Ms. Robles’s car, which had clocked 139,000 miles, was about $1,450, assuming it was in fair condition, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Safety advocates say that Mr. Henderson and the sellers before him should never have sold a recalled car without disclosing the defect or getting the airbag replaced at a Honda dealer at no cost to the owner.
Recall information on specific cars is available from the car’s maker and, since 2014, has been pooled in an online government database, which anyone can search using a vehicle identification number. And even before then, dealers and consumers alike were able to check whether a car was under recall by calling a government auto safety hotline.
Vendors like Carfax also provide detailed car history reports for a fee.
Despite the lack of explicit federal laws on recalled used cars, a patchwork of state consumer protections and laws already effectively prohibits the sale of dangerous vehicles, some safety advocates and lawyers say.
“Anytime they conceal a material defect, that’s fraud,” said Rosemary Shahan, the president of the nonprofit Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.
New York State, for instance, forbids the sale of vehicles “as is.” The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs says cars offered for sale must be “roadworthy,” and it has gone after dealers it suspected of selling cars that were recalled but not repaired.
But in New York State, government agencies are exempt from the “as is” rule, providing a loophole for the city’s Department of Finance auctions.
Some companies like CarMax, one of the country’s largest used-car dealers, advertise that their vehicles pass rigorous safety tests — even if the cars have unrepaired problems for which recalls have been issued. CarMax says it discloses recalls.
Still, Ms. Shahan and others argue, advertising a recalled vehicle as safe is misleading.
The vast universe of used-vehicle sales has created challenges for reaching owners of recalled vehicles, said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Though automakers are required by law to make an effort to contact a car’s current owner about a recall, the owners of used cars that have changed hands several times can be hard to track down.
“The people who own 15-year-old vehicles don’t generally have a direct relationship with the dealers,” Mr. Thomas said. “How do you get to those people? Is the address data up-to-date?” And, he said, do they know that fixing recalls is free?
The task is especially critical for defective Takata airbags, which contain a compound that breaks down over time, making them increasingly prone to rupturing.
Ms. Robles’s 2001 Civic was one of about 300,000 cars with airbags that federal regulators say pose a particularly high risk of exploding.
Three of the cars at Tuesday’s Department of Finance auction had been recalled for defective Takata airbags. Three others had open recalls for a deadly ignition switch defect that can cause a loss of power in cars.
But the cars were being sold “as is,” even if they were under recall, the auctioneer, Dennis Alestra, announced through a loudspeaker. “All sales are final,” he warned.
The city checks whether cars have been stolen or salvaged but does not look at whether a car has been recalled, said Patrick Edwards, a Department of Finance official. “We’re not responsible for any safety issues,” he said. “All buyers, the risk is on them.”
In a statement, Sonia Alleyne, a spokeswoman for the department, said that protecting consumers was a “priority” and that the agency was “open to working with state lawmakers to improve” the auction process.
Juan Carlos, a retired mechanical engineer who had his eye on a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan, knew to be wary. “These cars are from the street,” he said, “so you’re taking a chance.”
But Mr. Henderson, who bought the car that killed Ms. Robles in California, said he was shocked to learn only after her death about the car’s safety issues.
He bought the car at a wholesale auction run by Manheim, part of Cox Automotive, which also runs the vehicle research and valuation company Kelley Blue Book.
“They just said ‘as is,’” he said. “I knew nothing about the car.”
A spokesman for Manheim, which processes 7.5 million cars a year, said the company encouraged sellers to disclose recall information. There was “no realistic way” for the company to force dealers to disclose safety defects, said the spokesman, Chintan Talati.
Honda said it had been looking for the car’s owner.
On top of the 20 mailed notifications, the automaker made more than 90 phone calls to the vehicle’s previous owners, a Honda spokesman, Chris Martin, said.
And while Honda said it had sent recall notices to two addresses associated with Ms. Robles, Mr. Contreras said he did not know about them. Honda said it had been unable to find Ms. Robles’s phone number.
Honda never managed to elicit a response from Ms. Robles. When she drove to a clinic to get a flu shot on her day off last month, she hit a Chevy pickup that turned in her path.
It was an accident that Ms. Robles should have walked away from. But her airbag ruptured violently.
She was taken to a nearby hospital but later died from her wounds, according to the Riverside Police Department. She left behind three children and three grandchildren.
“She had just such a bright spirit,” said Monica Sanchez, front office manager at the Hampton Inn where Ms. Robles had worked for five years.
Ms. Robles had come to know the regulars, Ms. Sanchez said, including one guest whom she greeted every morning with a bowl of strawberries, which he liked to eat.
After the accident, the hotel staff made a photo collage of Ms. Robles. It hangs near the kitchen, for all the guests to see.