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California Lawmakers Aim To Corral Recalled Rentals

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On: Tue, Apr 19, 2011 at 11:37AM | By: Andrew W Davis

California Lawmakers Aim To Corral Recalled Rentals

So, here you are, sitting behind the wheel of a clean, freshly-rented automobile. You checked, initialed, and signed the form in all the right places and the bright and shiny young person handed you the key you’re about to use to bring this car-of-no-repute to life.

It looks new. Well, newer than the heap you usually drive. It seems clean there in the cabin, though it does smell faintly of Lysol and plastic. It started right away, too, and it seems all the lights and gauges and chiming-things are awake and ready to go. [You would be, too, except you can’t find the emergency brake release handle. After a few seconds of frantic pantomime in their direction, that shiny young person comes running back to point out the large and clearly marked handle you should’ve noticed.]

Once you get your seat and mirrors adjusted and your favorite stations on the radio’s presets, is there anything else car-related you should be wondering about? No, speed limits don’t count; controls that correctly and consistently live up to their name do.

You assume that a steering wheel that steers and brakes that stop the car were included in that unreasonably high amount you’re paying per day. I mean they offered you like thirty different kinds of insurance they wanted you to sign for to protect their car from you. What protects you?

It might surprise you to know that the bill some California lawmakers are working to enact will be the first in the nation that requires rental car companies to park recalled cars instead of renting them to you. Weird, right?

In the interest of full disclosure here I held various car-washing, ride-giving, car-renting and eventually vehicle-fleet-maintaining positions with Enterprise Rent-A-Car in California a, well… let's just say "a few years back." Chances are very good that if you rented a car from them in the Silicon Valley area during that time that I made sure it stayed safely on the road, no matter what life, the car companies, the government, and the "usual" renter tried to do with, for, and to it. And boy, did some of you people go out of your way to make my life miserable.

I ran herd on thousands of cars from dozens of car makers in every shape, size and persuasion. Not once—in many years—did even one of "my" cars fail to be inspected thoroughly, maintained regularly and most of all, be rented-out in as safe a condition as possible. But I was (ha!) car-obsessed and knew the difference between a recall for the potential failure of a head gasket—motor spits and conks out—and one for something that could risk more than an angry renter’s phone call due to that conked-out engine.

Sure, when some jerk-o returned a Chevy Cavalier two-door to us with the rear tires squared-off because he thought it was funny the way the front-wheel drive car could drag its emergency brake-locked rear tires along the ground, anyone could see that car had to be parked. Beyond that Well, in my own personal experience (disclaimer!) with the company, Enterprise didn’t have nearly enough “mes” to go around.

Now, I don’t work for Enterprise any more, and I didn’t work for them in 2004 when the two young women for which the bill is named—Raechel, 24, and Jacqueline, 20, Houck—were killed when the steering failed on a Chrysler PT Cruiser they had rented from Enterprise in central California resulting in the fatal crash.

Investigators hired by the Houck family said the power steering fluid line that was the subject of the recall leaked and caused the steering to fail, approximately 30 days after Enterprise received notice of the issue. Enterprise fought a wrongful death case brought by the family for five years before admitting negligence. Last year, a jury awarded the parents $15 million.

There aren’t many legs to stand on in fighting this bill, which—according to Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Monterey, who presented the bill to the committee—closes a loophole that allows auto renters to continue to put customers in recalled cars while auto dealers cannot, but that’s not stopping some rental agencies from trying.

"If something needs to be done—and there are different opinions about that—we think it needs to be done at the federal level," said Thomas Laffey, general counsel for Enterprise Holdings. Laffey also said that Enterprise and other major rental companies have provided cars for the equivalent of 3 billion days since the Houck accident without a single similar incident.

Representatives of other rental firms say they already fix 90 percent of their cars within 30 days of receiving a recall notice, so such legislation is unnecessary, and that the bill ignores other car providers, like taxi and limo companies and private and government fleets.

But as Monning said, "Consumers need to know that when they rent these cars, that these cars are safe.” Bill or no bill, take it from someone who’s been on both sides of the counter: ask. If they’re anything like me, they’d be happy to tell you how well taken care of the Focus or Corolla or whatever you’re facing is.

[And forgive the disapproving stares. They, like I, know what you people do to our beloved cars…]


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