Quick Notes

Rental car agencies have been sued for failing to complete open safety recalls, which have led to fatal car accidents.

Rental car agency’s obligations in completing open safety recalls prior to renting out a car was changed in 2015, prompted by a fatal accident involving the Houck sisters, and an expose.

Car rental dangers

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When you pick up your rental car from the agency, you assume that it will be safe and fit to drive. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. An expose by Chris Rossen and Charlie McLravy in 2015 showed that well-known rental car agencies were renting out their vehicles with known open safety recalls. At the time of the expose, it was against the law to sell a car with an open safety recall but, it was not illegal for a rental car agency to rent out a car with an open safety recall.

Why would a rental car agency rent out a car with open safety recalls?

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1. Profit: The most obvious answer is for profit. It costs the car rental agency to take the car out of service for a safety recall. It makes more sense for them profit-wise to avoid taking the car in for repairs unless it relates to regularly scheduled maintenance or can be done at that time. A lot of rental car agencies do basic maintenance in-house to keep their rental cars’ downtime low. These in-house maintenance employees may not be tasked with checking open safety recalls or checking other issues; they may not be trained to do so. The recall issue may never be brought to the appropriate person’s attention, or it may be put off to a later date to be dealt with by a specialized or more qualified individual. Rental car agencies generally take rental cars out of service after two years, so sometimes these recalls are not seen as priorities in light of the vehicle’s short time on the road.

2. Inattention: Rental car agencies tend to be staffed by younger employees. While they are trained and tend to be quite capable at their jobs, these employees may not own their own cars, or may not know about the safety recall process. In addition, the actual owner of the vehicle, the owner of the rental car agency, would likely be receiving the recall notices. These may not end up being passed along to the employee responsible for scheduling maintenance of the vehicle.

Raechel and Jacqueline Houck’s story

In 2004 two sisters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, rented a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car to drive to their mother’s home in Ojai to Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, they would never make it to Santa Cruz. The car they had rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car was under an open safety recall. An open safety recall of which Enterprise Rent-A-Car had been notified of a month earlier. While driving, the car began leaking steering fluid, swerved across the highway and grassy median into an oncoming 18-wheeler tractor-trailer and bursting into flames. Both sisters were killed. The leaking steering fluid was the reason for the open safety recall notice.

The Houck family went on to sue Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who, along with the police, painted the sisters in a very unfavorable light. Enterprise Rent-A-Car did this despite knowing that they had received notification of a safety recall that was directly related to the steering capability of the vehicle. After years, and mounds of evidence implicating them, Enterprise Rent-A-Car eventually admitted their liability and paid the Houck family $15 million dollars. When the Houck family went on to have a law called ‘Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act’ enacted, Enterprise Rent-A-Car was in opposition. Shocking, seeing as they had just paid $15 million dollars for two deaths that could have easily been prevented had the safety recalls been completed. Raechel and Jacqueline Houck’s mother, Caroline, continued to press on, and eventually was able to persuade the major rental car agencies that completing open safety recalls prior to renting out cars was the right thing to do.

Rental car safety recall law

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The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Rental Car Safety Act was incorporated into the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, FAST Act, of 2015.  This act was signed into law in December of 2015 and became effective as of June 1, 2016. This federal law requires rental car agencies with fleets of more than 35 vehicles to fix all open safety defects before renting out cars. This law also allows the National Highway Traffic Safety, NHTSA, to investigate rental car agencies and to punish violators of the Act.

What can you do to protect yourself?

The law, FAST, only requires rental car agencies with fleets of over 35 cars to fix all open safety recalls before renting the car out, so it is important that you check the size of the rental car agency or check the recall history of the rental car itself.

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How can you ensure that the car you pick up is safe to drive? Obtain the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, which is located on the inside driver’s door jamb, or the driver’s side dashboard close to the window. Once you have the VIN, you can check it on the National Highway and Transportation Safety Association website located here https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls.  If you find that your rental car has an open safety recall, you should decline the vehicle and request another car.

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