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Lawmakers fight to end 'rental car roulette' danger

Flanked by Cally Houck, who lost her two young daughter in a fiery rental car accident in 2004, Senator Barbara Boxer announces results of rental car pledge to make a "permanent commitment to not rent out or sell any vehicles under safety recall until the defect has been remedied."

When you rent a car you shouldn’t have to worry if it is safe to drive. But unfortunately, you do. 

Federal law does not prohibit a rental car company from putting you behind the wheel of a car or truck that’s subject to a safety recall, but has not been fixed. 

“What they’re doing now is playing ‘rental car roulette’ with people’s lives,” says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Automobile Reliability and Safety (CARS). “It’s just common sense that if the vehicle is under a safety recall they should ground it until it’s fixed.” 

“You really are at the mercy of the rental car company,” says David Butler with Consumers Union, the policy division of Consumer Reports. ”We have seen isolated incidents where people have rented a car that’s been recalled, it hasn’t been fixed and there have been real problems, accidents and even in a few isolated cases, deaths.” 

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) want to change the law. Last year, they introduced the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act (S. 14450) which would prohibit rental car companies from renting or selling cars that are under a safety recall until they are repaired. 

The bill is named after two sisters from Santa Cruz, Calif., who died in a fiery crash in 2004. They slammed into an 18-wheeler after their Enterprise rental car caught fire. That car had been recalled for a possible engine fire hazard, but had not been repaired. 

After the accident, the sisters’ mother successfully sued Enterprise and has been working to change industry practice ever since. 

“I do not want my daughters to have died in vain,” Cally Houck tells me. “It was clear that Enterprise knew exactly what it was doing. Enterprise did not have an internal company policy to deal with rental car recalls. It’s first and foremost policy is to rent the car.” 

Consumer advocates hope the Safe Rental Car Act will get some traction. In the meantime, Boxer hopes to get the industry to agree voluntarily to change its policy on recalled vehicles before the busy summer rental car season. 

“We cannot allow another family to endure the pain and the loss that Cally Houck and her family have gone through,” Sen. Boxer says. 

Three weeks ago, she sent a letter to the chief executives of the major rental car companies asking them to take the following pledge within 30 days: 

“Effective immediately, our company is making a permanent commitment to not rent or sell any vehicles under safety recall until the defect has been remedied.” 

 Today, at a Capitol Hill news conference, Boxer said only Hertz has agreed to the pledge as written. The other companies – Enterprise, Avis and Dollar/Thrifty – have not agreed to the pledge in its entirety and without condition. 

Enterprise says it’s already changed its policies, but it would not commit to the unqualified and permanent guarantee required by Boxer’s pledge. 

Enterprise would not talk to me about any of this, but in a recent letter to Sen. Boxer, CEO Andrew Taylor gave the company’s response. He writes: 

“In the more than eight years since the 2004 accident that tragically claimed the lives of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, Enterprise and the rental car industry have worked with the automobile manufacturers to enhance the existing procedures for receiving and responding to recall notices. These efforts, along with our commitment to dramatically improve our recall procedures, have helped prevent any similar event from occurring in the hundreds of millions of rental transactions since that time, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Taylor says current Enterprise policy prohibits the rental of any vehicle that is subject to a safety recall until the recall is remedied. Therefore, he writes, “No one need have any concern about the safety of the vehicles we rent.” 

Another potential hazard 
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act prohibits a car dealer from selling a vehicle that’s part of a safety recall until it’s fixed. The law does not apply to rental car companies. They can, if they choose, rent or sell a car under recall without warning you or making the necessary repairs. 

Consumer advocates call this another dangerous loophole, one that the Safe Rental Car Act would close. 

“What seems to happen is the rental car companies let the recalls pile up until they sell the vehicle,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “When they sell them, there’s no disclosure that there’s an outstanding recall, so you have a double-whammy that the defect isn’t fixed and there’s now a new owner who’s not going to get the recall notice from the car company.” 

Rental car companies that sign the Boxer pledge would agree not to sell any recalled vehicles – even on the wholesale market – that are not repaired. 

My two cents 
It’s simply ludicrous for a company to rent a car with a potential safety hazard that has not been corrected. You should not have to worry about getting behind the wheel of such a vehicle when you rent a car. 

Remember, the rental car company doesn’t pay for the recall repair – the manufacturer does. All they lose is some income while that car is off the road. 

This is a practice that should already be banned by law. Voluntary agreements can always be changed. Congress needs to pass the Rental Car Safety Act to ensure no other innocent and unsuspecting customers are hurt.  

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