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Proposed Bill to Hold Rental Car Companies Accountable to Recall Notices

In October 2004, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Santa Cruz for a trip to see their parents in Ojai, California. Both sisters were killed in a head-on collision on Highway 101 in outside Monterey. While the lost lives were tragic enough, an investigation found that the crash was caused by a leak in the power steering hose, which caused a fire that led to the fatal crash. Additionally, Diamler Chrysler had sent recall notices for 435,000 PT Cruisers a month before Enterprise rented the car to the Houck sisters.

In June 2010, an Alameda County jury found that Enterprise was negligent for ignoring the recall notices and thus liable for the Houck sisters’ deaths. The deceased victim’s parents were awarded $15 million in damages. However, Carol Houck is not resting her daughters’ memories on the jury award. Along with consumer advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), Houck has appealed to California lawmakers to pass Assembly Bill 753, which would prohibit rental car companies from renting any cars subject to federal recall notices. Formally named the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Rental Safety Act, the law would be the first of its kind in the United States, and would close a critical loophole regarding car rental procedures.

Federal law requires automakers to fix safety defects on vehicles, regardless of the dangers involved or the likelihood of harm to drivers. However, this obligation does not extend to rental car companies. Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) believes that it should. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Monning explained that “A consumer should be able to rent a car without worrying about safety issues that should have already been fixed.” He noted that some companies have changed their policies in lieu of the tragedy, but legislation would be necessary to ensure that all car renters comply.

Congress has taken notice of this loophole as well. A report produced by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) showed that within 90 days of receiving a recall notice, major rental companies such as Hertz, Budget and Enterprise had not repaired safety defects. This suggests that thousands of drivers may be unwittingly renting unsafe cars. New York Congressman Charles Schumer (D-New York) has appealed to the Federal Trade Commission to draft regulations covering rental companies, and has suggested that federal legislation may be necessary to ensure safe vehicles are available to the public.

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