When you rent a car from a national brand, you expect it to be safe, right? But several major rental car companies have informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that in some cases they continue to rent vehicles that have been recalled if they believe the problem is not serious. The companies claim that there are too many recalls to act on, and that it was impossible to determine what a Hertz executive called “a true safety recall.”
But the N.H.T.S.A. asserts that all recalls are safety recalls. The agency has been investigating how quickly rental companies carry out recalls. While admitting it does not know the scope of the problem, the agency has shown increasing concern over reports of people being injured or killed in rental vehicles that had not been repaired after a recall. However, the agency lacks the authority to force rental companies to act — just as it cannot force consumers to have their recalled vehicles repaired.
Earlier this year, the agency asked Dollar Thrifty, Enterprise Holdings, the Hertz Corporation and the Avis Budget Group to provide details about how they respond, if at all, to recalls. All but Dollar Thrifty, which was granted an extension, responded, and their letters were recently posted on the agency’s Web site.
Enterprise Holdings, which includes Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National and Alamo, told the safety agency that when it received a recall notice from a manufacturer, it did not rent that vehicle again “until all repairs are completed.” Even so, Enterprise offered a provision whereby it “may rent the vehicle prior to the recall work being completed” if the recall was determined by Enterprise to not pose an immediate risk to public safety. “However, our policy is still to have such work done as quickly as possible,” the letter continued.
Hertz wrote that the company also had a committee that reviewed recalls. “If the notice is determined to be a true safety recall,” its letter said, the vehicle may not be rented again until it is fixed. But when the committee deems the recall to not “represent an imminent or potentially serious risk,” the affected vehicles may still be rented out.
In such cases, Hertz places a note in the computer system, indicating that vehicle can be rented but “should be repaired as soon as the parts are available.”
Avis Budget, meanwhile, said it commonly contacted automakers to inquire “whether the conditions involved in the recall notice render the vehicle inoperable or unsafe to drive, or if the vehicle can be driven safely until the repairs are made.” The rental company then decides how quickly the repairs must be made.
The rental companies said they were doing a good job of protecting consumers, but also urged N.H.T.S.A. to adopt a labeling system for recalls that would indicate whether a recall was so serious that the affected vehicles should immediately be parked.
In a misguided argument, the rental companies complain that it is unfair to focus on rental companies when other fleet operators or even individual consumers are not required to carry out recall repairs.
The safety agency began its investigation last year, shortly after the Federal Trade Commission was asked by two consumer groups, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety and the Center for Auto Safety, to order Enterprise Rent-A-Car to fix recalled vehicles before renting them. Enterprise has admitted in a California court that its failure to fix a Chrysler PT Cruiser was responsible for the deaths of two California women when their car caught fire and crashed. The F.T.C. has yet to act on that request.