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Rosemary Shahan: from a lemon she made ... lemon laws

Consumer Reports News: July 27, 2007 07:18 PM

Consumer activist Rosemary Shahan was at one time so inexperienced that the posters she used to picket an auto dealer were completely illegible. This is the same Shahan whose tireless campaigns have led to lemon laws around the country, airbag requirements for every car sold in the U.S., numerous auto recalls, and a car buyer’s Bill of Rights in California.

Since 1979, Shahan has worked aggressively to expose deceptive and illegal practices, recall unsafe or defective vehicles, and improve auto safety technology. (For example, we can thank Shahan for making car manufacturers install height adjusters for seat belts). Currently, she is working to get California and other states to participate in the National Motor Vehicle Titling Information System. This national  information-sharing database allows law enforcement agents, and buyers and sellers of motor vehicles to track car histories. Doing so could curtail fraud involving vehicles damaged in wrecks or floods as well as identify stolen vehicles.

Shahan well deserves to be on this blog’s list of Safety Crusaders. Like many of our previous crusaders, she didn’t deliberately set out to be a consumer activist. It all happened by chance—and somewhat spontaneously—after a California auto dealer repeatedly failed to fix her car, damaged in a collision, in a timely fashion. "They kept saying it would be done and it wasn't," Shahan recently recalled. “After three
months, they admitted they hadn’t even ordered all the parts yet ... and said if we complained, they would put bad parts in the car. They even showed us samples of bad parts.” Shahan, then an English teacher, started to picket the dealership. “I was a terrible picketer. At first, people couldn’t read my signs.” But over time, her signs improved and more and more people approached Shahan to tell her their own car horror stories.

That was in 1980, when California’s state law said consumers had to give manufacturers a “reasonable” number of repair attempts before a car could be considered a lemon. “But nobody knew what was reasonable and at one hearing, Ford said it would take up to 30 tries” before it deemed a car a lemon, Shahan said.

That acknowledgement led to the drafting of a state lemon law in California that served as a model for similar laws across the country. Now, Shahan says, car manufacturers have four chances in California to repair a new car before it is labeled a lemon and the consumer is entitled to a full refund or replacement vehicle.

Shahan never got her wrecked car back, but she used a financial settlement from the dealer to launch a consumer advocacy group, now called CARS for Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, that has been on the leading edge of many auto-safety issues.

For the record, Shahan drives a 1988 Volvo, which she bought new because it had a driver's side airbag -- a new feature at the time. It now has 230,000 miles on it. “It’s a workhorse,” says Shahan. So too is Shahan -- and for that we are safer, and most grateful.

You can find out more about Shahan and her crusade at the CARS Web site.

Do you know any Safety Crusader candidates? Please let us know.

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