Campaign Aimed at Hazardous Rental Cars Shifts into High Gear

(iStockphoto)

A long-standing threat to rental car customers from unrepaired defective cars – an issue that received virtually no attention until early this year – has now become the focus of a sweeping federal legislative proposal to end that threat. Thus, in a brief six months, what started as an obscure court case in California has grown into a national initiative, supported by a cross-section of consumer advocacy groups, to insure the safety of millions of people who rent cars for business or pleasure.

It started in 2004, when sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Santa Cruz, Calif. Four days later, the two young women were dead, killed in a fiery crash triggered by a defect in the car. Chrysler had recalled nearly half a million PT Cruisers a month earlier because of the defect – a design that could result in fire by causing a leakage of flammable power steering fluid onto hot engine surfaces or catalytic converters. But Enterprise had ignored the recall and rented the car three times before renting it to the sisters. The Houck family brought suit against the rental car company. In 2010, after nearly six years of stonewalling, Enterprise finally admitted in court that it was responsible for the Houck sisters’ death. It was ordered by a jury to pay damages of $15 million to the parents.

This commentary also published by:
Los Angeles Times

But Enterprise had broken no law because at present, auto defect statutes and regulations don’t require rental car companies to fix recalled vehicles. Seeking to close that lethal loophole, Bill Monning, the California state assemblyman from Santa Cruz, introduced a bill in February to forbid the companies from putting unrepaired recalled cars into the hands of California customers. The bill, AB753, seemed headed for swift approval; the need to protect the lives of rental-car customers from safety hazards was obvious.

Obvious, that is, to everyone except the rental car companies themselves. They quickly marshaled a campaign to defeat the California bill, or to so weaken it that they could continue to rent recalled vehicles without first repairing them. Despite this, the Monning bill passed the California Assembly. It is pending in the Senate, where the companies’ lobbying efforts against the bill have intensified.

In the latest rental-car safety development, the issue has risen to the federal level. On July 28, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer introduced the “Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011” to ban rentals of recalled but unrepaired vehicles. “Millions of rental car customers and others who share the road with them may be at risk” without such a prohibition, Schumer said. The bill is co-sponsored by California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal. It is expected to gather more co-sponsors; senators and their staffs are frequent travelers and, therefore, car renters.

In addition to banning rentals of cars and trucks under safety-defect recalls until they are repaired, the bill also prohibits sales of rental cars with uncorrected defects. Last year, according to Schumer’s office, rental car companies sold 1.4 million cars to auctions, wholesalers and consumers. The bill’s provisions would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.

Further, the bill would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to carry out two studies and transmit the results to Congress. One study would address reports that rental companies have ordered new vehicles without side air bags or other safety features. Consumers renting or subsequently purchasing such cars were never informed, Schumer said. The second study would determine whether rental car companies may be selling cars that they know are about to be recalled but before getting the recall notice.

The rental car industry has opposed proposals such as Schumer’s and Monning’s. It argues that its rentals of recalled vehicles before they are repaired are “infrequent.” It also argues that some safety defects are not so serious that they must be fixed immediately. It has called for a two-tier recall system that would provide leeway to delay some repairs. But NHTSA has disputed the idea that some fixes can wait: “All safety recalls resulting from defects present an unreasonable risk to safety and we believe it is inappropriate to suggest that some defects are not risky enough to require repair. For the safety of the motoring public, all recalled vehicles should be fixed promptly.”

To some observers it seems incongruous that the rental car industry is fighting proposals meant to insure the safety of their customers – a fight that can only mean negative publicity for the companies and a stain on their reputation. But Carol Houck, the mother of the sisters killed in the 2004 crash and a vigorous proponent of the Monning and Schumer bills, thinks reputation and the wellbeing of customers are of less concern to the industry than money. “The industry’s business model clearly illustrates that profit trumps safety every time,” she says.

Ben Kelley is on the board of the Center for Auto Safety and works with the Trauma Foundation, two of the groups supporting the Schumer and Monning bills. He is working on a book about the Houck case.

Related Post:

Rental Car Firms Taking a Wrong Turn on Recall Bill

 

 

 

 

Print Print  

2 comments to “Campaign Aimed at Hazardous Rental Cars Shifts into High Gear”

  1. Terry Carson

    So if I buy a car they can’t sell it with a recall and if I had bought it they have to notify me of a recall, but a rental car company can ignore a recall and no laws regulate them and it’s ok to kill people? I take for granted a car I rent has safe brakes and no recalls, I had no idea they do not have to abide by safety laws. They must give alot of money to politicians. I guess you have to update your will everytime you rent a car. This should be an law easy no brainer law to pass unless your a corrupt politician with no morales.

  2. Louis Lombardo

    People can check vehicles for recalls by entering the VIN for a particular auto manufacturer at the Center for Auto Safety web site.

    See http://www.autosafety.org/campaigns/14

    It would be very helpful if a mobile app were developed to facilitate such checking.

Leave a comment