Rental Car Recall Roulette

by Don Elliott on June 20, 2012

In October of 2004, 24-year old Rachael Houck and her younger sister, Jacqueline, we’re returning from their mother’s home in Ventura, California. Rachael lost control of her rented 2004 PT Cruiser, crashing head on into an oncoming tractor-trailer. The PT cruiser burst into flames, killing the sisters in the fiery crash. Court records indicate that the power steering system failed causing Houck to loose control of the car.

Rachael had rented the car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s Capitola location for the trip to visit her family in Southern California. The Houck sisters were the fourth renter since the car’s manufacturer, Daimler Chrysler, issued a safety recall notice citing a potential leak in a power steering hose that could result in a fire and loss of control.

Enterprise records confirmed that the PT cruiser had not been repaired. In fact, during court proceedings, Enterprise officials admitted that vehicles with outstanding recalls had been rented on a nationwide basis. Enterprise is the nation’s largest car rental company.

After a five year legal battle, a jury awarded the parents of the Houck sisters $15M in a settlement that has not yet fully changed the way car rental companies handle recalls.

Senators Barbara Boxer, D-California, and Charles Schumer, D-New York, are sponsoring a bill that would regulate the car rental company’s ability to rent or sell vehicles with outstanding recalls. In the meantime, Boxer has asked companies to pledge “a permanent commitment to not rent or sell any vehicles under safety recall until the defect has been remedied.” So far, Hertz is the only company to confirm compliance with the pledge.

Consumer advocacy groups have joined in on the push by Boxer and Schumer to have auto repair work completed before the vehicle can gets into the consumers’ hands.  Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Massachusetts stated, “Any recall is a safety-related recall. It needs to be handled before the customer gets a car. It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility. It should be the company’s responsibility. That’s what’s missing in this equation.”

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Automotive Reliability and Safety claims, “What they are doing is playing ‘car rental roulette’ with people’s lives.”

Since the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted in 1966, “…more than 360 million cars, trucks, buses, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, and mopeds, as well as 46 million tires, 66 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment, and 42 million child safety seats have been recalled to correct safety defects,” according to the website.

Car rental companies argue that the shear volume of safety recalls prevents them from pulling cars from service until repairs can be completed. In some cases, parts and automotive repair solutions are not available at the time the recall is issued.

To make sure that you are not renting a car with a potential safety issue, insist that your rental agent confirms that there are no outstanding recalls on the specific vehicle that you will be driving.

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