By Misty Volaski
Ojai mother Cally Houck and rental car safety advocates took a big step this week toward what they hope will lead to federal legislation of the rental car industry’s safety recall policies.
Hertz, the No. 2 car rental company in America, has signed an agreement with the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, supporting the proposed legislation and agreeing to give authority over their recall-related practices to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Hertz wants to do the right thing,” said Houck. “We’re very, very happy they made this very courageous decision. They stepped away from the industry to do the right thing. They were the first to do it.” She hopes others, namely Avis Budget Group, Inc., will follow. The timing of Hertz’s decision is fortunate for Houck’s cause, with the Senate set to vote on the NHTSA highway bill next week.
As it stands now, manufacturers and automotive dealerships are forbidden by law to sell any vehicles currently under a safety recall until the issue has been repaired. However, the rental car industry — the nation’s “largest purchaser of new cars,” Houck says — doesn’t have to operate under these laws. They may sell or rent their vehicles regardless of whether the car has a cosmetic recall, such as chipping paint on a bumper, or a major safety recall, like faulty brakes or seat belts.
Houck has good reason to continue her relentless push for reform. It was an unrepaired safety recall that took the lives of her daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline, Nordhoff High School graduates, in 2004. The girls rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in October of that year which was under a safety recall for a power steering fluid problem. The car leaked the fluid, causing an under-hood fire which resulted in the loss of steering control — and the girls’ deaths in a fiery head-on collision with a semi-truck. Despite a five-year legal battle which resulted in Enterprise admitting liability and $15 million in damages being awarded to the family, Houck says that still wasn’t enough to prompt Enterprise to change its safety recall policies.
“They have billions and billions of dollars,” she said. “It’s not too much to ask” to ensure the safety of the consumer. Houck added, “I’m still a raging lioness. That mother part of me doesn’t care what they do. They won’t be able to fix it for us. But at least they can fix it for other families. We’re certainly not going to back down.”
To that end, Houck and her son, Greg, have teamed with C.A.R.S., Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), among other lobbyists and consumer safety groups, to get the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act attached to the NHTSA reauthorization bill. This would give NHTSA authority over the industry’s recall-related practices and force them to adhere to the same rules as the manufacturers and dealerships on the issue.
“Boxer and Schumer are real champions of this cause,” Houck said. “They’ve become real powerful advocates” for the legislation.
Rosemary Shahan, president of C.A.R.S., echoed Houck’s enthusiasm for the senators’ efforts, and also applauded Hertz’s bold move. The agreement with Hertz is made up of three parts, she said. They’ve agreed to be “on the same footing as the dealerships” regarding safety recall practices, Shahan said. Hertz also agreed that if they get a safety recall notice for a vehicle that’s currently in the hands of a consumer, they will, “Notify them as soon as practicable,” Shahan said. The third part of the agreement states that NHTSA will have jurisdiction over their recall practices.
“This is an indication that they’re confident that their practices are (solid), and that they’re comfortable being under government regulation and oversight,” Shahan said.
Avis, meanwhile, “has expressed interest,” she added, in discussing an agreement for their company. Avis’ vice president of communications, John R. Barrows, was non-committal when asked whether the company will ultimately join Hertz in its agreement with C.A.R.S. “With respect to legislation,” Barrows said in a Thursday e-mail, “it has always been Avis Budget Group’s view that recall issues should be resolved on a federal level … While the Hertz proposal has certain coverage and logistical problems, we welcome an opportunity to discuss these challenges with input from consumers, manufacturers, and fleet owners and operators.To that end, we are currently reviewing and discussing the Hertz proposal and other ideas with Hertz among other parties.”
Still, Houck and Shahan feel optimistic. “That Avis is still talking means that they haven’t written it off yet,” Houck said. “We are crossing our fingers that Avis will come on board.”
Next week, when Congress reconvenes, the Senate will vote on the NHTSA bill. “We’re working day and night with a great coalition of proponents,” said Houck. Until then, Boxer, Schumer, Shahan and the consumer groups, as well as several power players in the Washington, D.C., area, will continue to keep the dialogue open with the rental car industry. Houck also started a Change.org petition Tuesday morning, called “Enterprise Rent-A-Car: Stop opposing a law prohibiting companies from renting out recalled cars.” It has gathered 132,000 signatures as of press time.
One signer, Michael Travere, commented, “I am no longer a happy Enterprise customer wondering how many times did they let me rent a unsafe car. Fix the problem because from here on out I am a Hertz customer. Because they place my safety first. So long, Enterprise no one in my family drives your cars until proven otherwise.”
To sign the petition, go to change.org and search Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
UPDATE Friday, 2/24/2012 5:32 p.m.
According to published reports, Enterprise Rent-A-Car has indicated it may be reconsidering its staunch opposition to federal oversight of the rental car industry.
In a statement issued Thursday, Enterprise said of the proposed legislation, “In the past, we believed this step was unnecessary, but a growing number of people, including our customers and business partners, clearly want more assurance on this critical issue. We hear them and what we’ve heard has caused us to rethink our stance.” It also said the company is “profoundly sorry” for “the tragedy of the Houck sisters’ deaths.”
The proposed legislation would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authority to govern the practices of rental car companies regarding vehicles under a safety recall; they would be required to ground and repair vehicles under recall prior to renting or selling them to consumers.
When asked to clarify the company’s position, Enterprise spokeswoman Laura T. Bryant said in an e-mail to the OVN Friday afternoon, “We have not endorsed any specific legislation or amendment to date, but — as previously stated — we pledge to work collaboratively with those individuals and organizations who today are committed to legislative oversight of the recall process.” She did not address a question posed to her, regarding whether or not Enterprise would join Hertz in its agreement with the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in support of the proposed legislation. She also did not address the question of whether the company would consider making its own agreement with the consumer advocacy group.
Ojai mom Cally Houck isn’t buying into the excitement some expressed when Enterprise issued its statement. Houck, whose two daughters Raechel and Jacqueline died in a car accident caused by safety recalls what weren’t repaired by Enterprise, said, “This is all spin to try to make Enterprise look good. Until they come out and say, ‘We’re supporting the (Raechel and Jacqueline) Safe Rental Car Act,’ until they ground all recalled cars and fix them and don’t rent or sell them until they’ve fixed them, then we have nothing more to talk about. And we’ll just continue this campaign. Right is might. We’re going to continue to put pressure on Enterprise. We want their full unconditional support of the legislation. We want them to stop renting recalled cars unconditionally. We want them to join Hertz.”