It would be fair to say that when renting a car most of us assume the car is safe. Car rental companies make you sign a document acknowledging any visible damage to the vehicle and are known to check returned vehicles carefully before sending them back out with new renters.
Did you know, however, that if the car or truck you’re renting is subject to a recall notice no law prevents a rental company from sending you out on the road in that vehicle? As a basic measure of consumer protection it sounds amazing, but, according to a recent article in the trade publication Automotive News, it is true.
Not only that, but major figures in the industry are fighting to retain their right to send customers out in unsafe vehicles. Automotive News reports that earlier this month “major automakers and auto dealers told a Senate panel… that they remain opposed to legislation that would prohibit rental car companies from renting or selling vehicles that are subject to a federal safety recall.” (car rental companies generally sell their vehicles after a year or two of use)
It is worth mentioning that, according to the report, most of the major car rental companies support the legislation in question – though many opposed a ban on renting unrepaired vehicles subject to a recall until Enterprise acknowledged liability to settle a lawsuit settled last year. In that incident two women died “when a recalled PT Cruiser they had rented from Enterprise caught fire and hit a truck. The rental car company had received a safety recall notice about 30 days before the accident,” according to Automotive News.
The auto industry claims that this common sense measure to protect customers here in Oregon and elsewhere from unsafe products would damage their business. Instead of worrying about customer safety the automakers are concerned that rental car companies might sue them for lost income during the time vehicles are out of service while undergoing crucial safety-related repairs.
As a Portland attorney with a particular interest in protecting Oregonians from unsafe products, what is especially hard to understand is the idea that car makers are putting their fear of highly technical business lawsuits ahead of the safety of their customers. Surely once a manufacturer’s vehicle becomes the subject of a safety recall the first, indeed only, priority ought to be protecting the public by getting the affected cars or trucks off the road and into repair shops as quickly as possible?
Especially troubling is the proposal that a compromise might emerge by differentiating between “major” and “minor” recalls. While it is true that auto recalls involve varying degrees of urgency, the greater truth is that consumer safety simply must be the first priority of everyone up and down the sales and use chain. If a vehicle is not safe for private owners to drive and needs to go to a dealer for the urgent fixing of defects then renters should not be out on the road in unrepaired vehicles. Individuals who own relatively new cars are generally plugged into a manufacturer’s customer service system and are easy to contact. Renters taking a car for a few days or a week cannot – and should not – be expected to scour federal websites for recall information before heading out for the weekend in a rented vehicle.
It is enough of a scandal that legislation to close this loophole was not enacted years ago. That manufacturers and dealers who ought to be thinking about customer safety would oppose it today is a sad commentary on the current state of America’s business culture.