Rental Car Industry Comes Under Scrutiny of Auto Safety Regulators and Advocates

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by | Mar 14, 2012 | Auto Accidents

American rental car companies have about 1.6 million vehicles in their fleets, according to a recent report in USA TODAY. Hundreds of thousands of these vehicles may be subject to a recall at any given time. During a 2010 recall initiated by Toyota because of problems with some vehicles’ accelerator pedals, as many as 1 in 5 rental vehicles nationwide were included in the recall. This has given rise to concerns about the safety of rental company customers and others in the event of an accident caused by unrepaired defects in the vehicles. Rental companies have developed guidelines for how to handle recalls, but no consensus exists as to whether the federal government should have regulatory authority over the industry.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Congress last summer, the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011, would provide oversight of the rental car industry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The law would regulate issues related to safety defects and recalls under federal deceptive trade practice laws. Current law requires manufacturers and dealers selling new cars to fix recalled vehicles before selling them. The NHTSA has authority over manufacturers, but rental companies are not covered at all by existing law.

The bill is named for two sisters, Raechel Houck, age 24, and Jacqueline Houck, age 20, who died in a car crash in California in 2004. They had rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The car was subject to a safety recall for a problem with its power-steering fluid, but the car had not been repaired and had been rented to several other consumers before the Houcks. Leaking power-steering fluid caught fire while they were driving, which caused them to lose control and crash into a tractor trailer.

The NHTSA has reportedly been investigating the industry for over a year, based on allegations of renting cars to the public that are part of a recall without first repairing them. Last month, Hertz, the second-largest auto rental company in the country, entered into an agreement with the NHTSA to give the agency oversight of their industry. Several U.S. Senators have said they plan on re-introducing the bill named for the Houck sisters.

The largest and third-largest rental companies, Enterprise and Avis Budget, have not joined Hertz in its agreement with the government. A spokesperson for Enterprise said that regulation is not necessary, as the industry has adopted new and sufficient safety standards in recent years. Avis Budget said that the new law would target rental companies while leaving taxi and limousine services alone.

Recalls of rental cars, when considering issues of liability for injuries, bring up questions of both simple negligence and products liability. Rental car companies, as dealers of goods, have a duty to the public to provide a product reasonably free of defects. Consumers renting cars from these companies have a duty to drive safely, but their duty depends in part on the company providing a safe vehicle. Hopefully efforts at government oversight will improve the safety of rental cars, but will also clarify questions of liability in the event of an accident.

Kansas City auto accident attorney Doug Horn advocates safe driving and represents the rights of people who have suffered injuries in auto accidents. For a free and confidential consultation, contact the firm today online or at (816) 795-7500.