SB-1445 seeking bipartisan support
By Misty Volaski
The battle for rental car safety legislation on Capitol Hill is heating up, but Ojai’s Houck family is “not going to be deterred,” said matriarch Cally. “We’ve got a very committed coalition and the support of some top lawmakers — (Barbara) Boxer, (Charles) Schumer, (Dianne) Feinstein, (Richard) Blumenthal, (Kirsten) Gillibrand. This is my top priority. There is nothing more honorable than to continue to participate” in getting Senate Bill 1445 passed. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.”
Houck has good reason to be so passionate about getting recalled — but unfixed — rental cars off the road. Her two daughters, former Nordhoff High School students Jackie and Raechel, were killed in 2004 in a firey car accident when they lost control of their rented PT Cruiser. The vehicle had a safety recall, but no repairs had been made; an under-hood fire caused Raechel to lose control, and the girls were killed when they slammed head-on into a semi truck. After five years of litigation against Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a jury found in favor of the Houcks, awarding them $15 million.
But for Cally, that was not justice for her girls; the only thing that can bring justice, she says, is to get legislation enacted which would force rental car companies to abide by the same recall laws that manufacturers must follow.
A California bill has already been introduced, and currently, New York Senator Schumer and others are working at the federal level to get SB-1445 attached to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s reauthorization bill.
After Thanksgiving, for the first time, Cally brought along Raechel and Jackie’s younger brother, Greg, with her to Washington D.C. to help promote the bill and gain bipartisan support. Thanks to advocate Pamela Gilbert, a well-respected lawyer and former board member at the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety group, the Houcks got access to the staffers of some key legislators. “It’s very difficult to get in to see even a low staffer,” said Houck. “Pamela opened doors for us.” Greg and Cally spoke with staffers in the offices of Arizona Sen. John McCain, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, as well as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, among others. Kerry’s staffer, Houck said, indicated that “He was going to take this directly to John Kerry. We felt we were very well received” by all the staffers they met,” she added.
Currently, the bill is in a committee, but the Houcks hope a vote will come soon to move it one step closer to law. “It’s much easier to get it attached to a bill that has bipartisan support (like the reauthorization bill),” said Houck, “but we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Rosemary Shahan, president of C.A.R.S. and a staunch advocate of the Houcks’ crusade, said, “Cally (met) with staff on both sides of the aisle, and she debunked a lot of misinformation. We’re rebutting what the industry is putting out. It’s really absurd stuff, pretty outrageous.”
Needless to say, the rental car companies are putting up a fight against industry regulation. Huge sums of money are at stake. “We knew they would (fight hard), going in,” said Houck. Still, she remains confident that the bill will eventually pass. After all, as several consumer safety activists have pointed out to Houck, “It took 10 years to get the airbag law passed.”
While the industry claims that pulling all vehicles with safety recalls from their fleet would be a financial burden, Houck points out that profits run into the billions of dollars for the privately-held Enterprise corporation alone. It’s not about getting back at them, she said, it’s about keeping the consumer safe. Houck explained, “Companies that put dangerous products into hands of consumers — bad food, cribs that are dangerous for infants — those companies have to take the products out of the hands of consumers. So, why are the rental car companies exempt from that? Why are they exempt from consumer protection laws?”
Shahan pointed out that she’s seen lots of contradictions from the rental car industry in D.C. “They contradict themselves all the time,” she said. “On one hand, they say they don’t need regulation because they’re already taking care of the problem. But 10 to 20 percent (of the safety recalled vehicles) even after 60 days still haven’t been fixed by their own admission. Then on the other hand, they’re saying they don’t want to ground these cars right away, that they want to have a committee to decide whether it’s unsafe enough to justify grounding them. But this is a simple idea — whenever a dealer has to ground a car because it’s so unsafe that they can’t sell it, then a rental car company shouldn’t be able to rent or sell it either.”
“It’s common sense,” Houck said. “The reaction from both sides of the aisle has been that this makes complete sense. But they said that just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s do-able; there’s another factor called politics. But we’re just going to move forward.”
Her son Greg, a budding songwriter, was inspired after his D.C. trip to write a song about his experiences in D.C. An excerpt follows:
“Let me tell you about rental car safety protocols
It’s a fact that there’s no protocol at all
I’m on Capitol Hill, trying to work on a bill
But the rental car companies are fighting us still …
Recalled cars rented out to us
Without us knowing, stopping it is a must
Houck Senate Bill 1445 or bust!
So then once again we can gain the trust.
Some corporations corrupt the world
A recalled car rented out is how I lost my girls.
There is no law, to stop it at all
So I’m on Capitol Hill, fighting for the cause.”