Promoting product safety through education, awareness and advocacy.

Isabella’s Story: Rental Car Industry Should Be Held to Higher Standards

Millions of Americans rent cars every year, and many want and expect a level of safety which is as good as or better than their cars at home.  Being that rental cars are generally new models, many drivers believe they are going to have the newest and best safety features, and offer protection for them and their families on long road trips or while driving in strange unfamiliar places.

But, the fact is, the consuming public may be renting cars without safety features on par with their own cars. Or, worse, they may have even been recalled but are still being offered by the rental company. The public needs to be made aware of these safety issues to protect themselves and their families while traveling.

Isabella’s family embarked on what was supposed to be the family vacation of a lifetime. They rented a new model year vehicle from Dollar/Thrifty Car Rental to make the long trip from their home in North Carolina to Orlando, Florida to go to Disney World for the first time, believing that by renting a new car that their family would be “safer” with the car having the newest  safety technologies.

While their long drive was uneventful, on August 5, 2009, while 2-year-old Isabella was a properly restrained right rear passenger in the 2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser that her family had rented, tragedy struck. On that day,  as they were making a left hand turn with the green turn arrow the PT Cruiser was struck by another vehicle on its right side where Isabella was seated. As a result of the impact, Isabella sustained fatal head and neck injuries.

Isabella’s parents believed that the PT Cruiser was equipped with side impact airbags for everyone, when in fact, the airbags only extended to the front seat. While her parents had heard for years that the safest place for their children was the rear seat, and they were ever vigilant about using seatbelts and proper child seats, the reality was that they rented a car that offered more protection to the adult front seated passengers than the children placed in the back.  As a result, injuries that could have well been prevented by a properly installed and functioning side airbag system, were not, and Isabella was tragically killed.

This issue is not just limited to the rental car industry, but extends to the car buying industry as well.  Consumers buying new vehicles face the same problem that many renters face, which is that much of the marketing, sales and rental information available makes it difficult to discern what protections are incorporated or not seat by seat.  Front seated occupants often have more protections than rear seated occupants, yet, for most consumers, it is hard to know from vehicle to vehicle whether this is or is not actually the case.

Isabella’s story brings to light the lack of oversight of the rental car industry overall.  The rental car industry is the single largest purchaser of new cars, and the single largest source of used cars in North America, yet there is no uniform oversight from NHTSA.  Not only is safety information presented subjectively, another issue of great concern is the fact that cars known to be under active recall can and are still being rented by national companies even today.  It is the singular focus of safety advocacy groups such as Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS).

CARS  was started by a mother whose two daughters died after they rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car which was under an active recall.  The women, Rachel and Jacqueline Houck, were killed in a collision that was indirectly caused by a defect in the car that had been recalled – but that the defect was not fixed before it was rented to them.  The PT Cruiser had been recalled due to a risk of under-hood fires, and that the women were not informed of the risk.  While driving in California, the car caught fire, causing a loss of steering power that led to a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck, killing the women instantly.

CARS has been partially successful so far, with Hertz Rent-A-Car, the nation’s second-largest rental  car company, taking the rare step of asking for government regulation to ensure that autos under recall are fixed before they’re rented.  Further, in April 2012, a group of Congressmen introduced the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Rental Car Safety Act of 2012 in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The bill, H.R. 6094, will require rental car companies to ground unsafe, recalled vehicles until they are fixed. The language in H.R. 6094 is the same as in the agreement reached between CARS and Hertz Rental Car Co., which has been helping lobby for its enactment.

According to data provided by rental companies to USA TODAY, hundreds of thousands of the 1.6 million vehicles in their U.S. fleets are recalled annually for safety problems. Hertz and Enterprise had nearly 184,000 vehicles under recall last year. In 2010, when Toyota announced a massive recall of vehicles with accelerators that could stick, Hertz and Enterprise had 350,000 vehicles — about 22% of the industry’s entire fleet — under recall.

The American Car Rental Association trade group says there is no need for federal regulation.  The trade group says rental companies complete recall work quicker than other vehicle owners, and no laws prohibit owners, taxi and limousine companies, and others who operate or lease vehicles from using them before they are repaired.

NHTSA has been investigating the safety and oversight of the rental car industry since 2010.  As part of that research, it has looked at how quickly rental companies fixed vehicles in the 15 past recalls, and found that it can take months or even a year or more before rental companies repair a recalled vehicle.

According to NHTSA, no major auto-rental company fixed all of its recalled vehicles within a year.  General Motors documents, for example, show that a year after getting a recall notice about a shift lever indicator problem in 2009 Buick Enclaves, Chevrolet Cobalts and seven other types of vehicles in their fleets, Avis Budget Group had fixed 35% of them. The documents show that Enterprise fixed 34% of these types of vehicles in their fleets within 30 days after the recall, 52% within 60 days, 62% within 120 days and 74% within a year.

Statistics like these demonstrate why safety conscious consumers must be cautious, as rented vehicles may not be as safe as they are perceived to be.  Also, as Isabella’s story shows, consumers must look beyond artfully crafted marketing and rental materials, and ask hard questions of car dealers and rental companies about the exact safety features on their cars.

Hank Didier

Hank Didier

Henry “Hank” Didier has a long history of representing clients and their families whose lives have been irrevocably changed by a defective product, a rollover accident, a tire failure, or a dangerously operated truck.

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