Consumers to Senator Blunt: Save Lives, Lead Effort to Pass Rental Car Safety Bill

ST. LOUIS, Mo (July 10, 2015) – Consumers Council of Missouri is calling upon Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, to co-sponsor legislation to bar rental car companies from renting or selling unsafe, recalled vehicles to the public until the safety defects have been repaired.  A key vote over rental car safety is expected next Wednesday in the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

CCM is also asking Sen. Blunt to reject a bill being offered by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would allow rental-car companies to rent vehicles with unresolved dangerous defects as long as they disclose the defects in writing to the renter.  (Learn more by reading the following story.)

Under pressure from auto manufacturers and car dealers, Congress has delayed acting to protect the public.  Recently, Honda admitted that a faulty Takata air bag in a recalled Honda Civic rental car claimed the life of a 26-year-old woman when the air bag exploded with excessive force, sending shrapnel into her neck.

The pro-consumer bill, S. 1173, the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2015, has been re-introduced for several years.  It is named in memory of two sisters, ages 24 and 20, who were killed by an unrepaired, recalled rental car in 2004, near Santa Cruz, California.  The Houck sisters were killed by a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser rented from Enterprise, based in St. Louis.

Subsequent to the settlement of a lawsuit by the Houck sisters’ parents, Enterprise responded to the outreach from consumer groups, including Consumers Council and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), and became an ally in actively advocating for passage of the Safe Rental Car Act.

As a majority member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Blunt is in a position to play a key role in passage of the bill.

“How many more people have to die before Senator Blunt joins Enterprise, one of our state’s largest businesses, and consumer groups in protecting the public?” asked state Rep. Tracy McCreery, secretary-treasurer of Consumers Council’s Board of Directors.  “He should be leading the way on common sense protection for consumers who rent cars.”

Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, many smaller rental companies and the American Car Rental Association have been working in concert to support the bill, asking to be regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  In addition, last year General Motors changed its position and switched from opposing the bill to supporting it, after it was amended to clarify that it would not change existing law regarding manufacturer’s obligations to compensate rental car companies for lost revenue.

Meanwhile, all of the major rental car companies and their trade association have pledged to stop renting or selling recalled cars until they have been repaired.  However, as the recent tragedy showed, federal legislation, enforceable by NHTSA, is needed to ensure that all rental cars are free from lethal safety defects that have led to a manufacturer’s safety recall.  Last August, Jewel Brangman, age 26, rented a 2001 Honda Civic from a small rental car company in San Diego.  On September 7, she was involved in a low-speed chain-reaction crash in Los Angeles.  She should have been able to walk away from the crash, but the defective air bag exploded into her neck.

Below is the letter Consumers Council sent to Sen. Blunt on Tuesday, July 7.

Dear Senator Blunt,

Consumers Council of Missouri is writing to strongly urge you to co-sponsor S. 1173, the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2015, which would prohibit rental car companies from renting or selling unsafe, recalled vehicles to the public until the safety defects have been repaired.  Under federal law, car dealers may not legally sell recalled new cars with lethal safety defects.  That has been the law since the 1960s.  But no similar federal law protects people who rent cars. 

As you are aware, the bill has been re-introduced for several years.  It is named in memory of two sisters, ages 24 and 20, who were killed by an unrepaired, recalled rental car in 2004, near Santa Cruz, California.  This preventable tragedy propelled Cally Houck, the mother of the two young women, to vigorously pursue passage of the bill so other families won’t have to suffer the unspeakably sad loss of loved ones in dangerous vehicles.

Passage of this common sense legislation is long overdue.  Congress’s failure to act, to protect people who rent cars, has resulted in yet another preventable death in a recalled rental car.  Last August, Jewel Brangman, age 26, rented a 2001 Honda Civic from a small rental car company in San Diego.  On September 7, she was involved in a low-speed chain-reaction crash in Los Angeles.  She should have been able to walk away from the crash.  However, the car was equipped with a defective Takata air bag that exploded with excessive force, spewing metal fragments that severed her carotid artery, causing her death.

That car was being recalled by Honda, and Honda had issued a recall notice months before the fatal crash.  However, the rental car company chose to ignore the recall notice – with fatal results.  Had the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act been in effect, making it a federal offense for the rental car company to rent out that car before the safety recall was performed, Jewel Brangman might still be alive today.  Recently, in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Honda expressed “everlasting regret” over this horrendous loss, but it stopped short of actually supporting the bill.  That is totally unacceptable.

We hope that you will soon sign on as a co-sponsor and will advocate actively for passage of this important auto safety legislation.  As a member of the majority on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation you can play a significant roll in the passage of this legislation.   

Again, as you are aware, the Houck sisters were killed in a car rented from Enterprise.  Consumers Council of Missouri (CCM) became involved in this effort by working with other consumer and safety organizations – primarily Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) – because Enterprise is based in St. Louis.  We wanted the company to know that Missourians care profoundly about driving safe cars. 

In 2012, we delivered a petition to Enterprise’s headquarters signed by more than 162,000 people supporting our efforts.  In addition, a statewide poll conducted in Missouri revealed that 86 percent of Missourians favor prohibiting rental car companies from renting recalled vehicles that have not been repaired.   

Enterprise responded to the outreach from consumer groups and others and has become an ally.  It is actively advocating for passage of the bill.  Enterprise joins Hertz, Avis, many smaller rental companies and the American Car Rental Association in working for the bill.  In addition, last year General Motors switched from opposing the bill to supporting it.  It made that decision after the bill was amended to clarify that it would not in any way change existing law regarding rental car companies’ ability to obtain restitution for lost income when they ground unsafe cars.

We thank you for your consideration.  We look forward to your prompt and favorable response.

Regards,

Joan Bray, Executive Director, Consumers Council of Missouri

Click here to send your own message to Sen. Roy Blunt.

Ask him to co-sponsor S. 1173 and make sure it is part of vehicle safety legislation in the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, July 15.

Learn more about this issues at moconsumers.organd/or carconsumers.org.

 

Below is an article published by Bloomberg Business about the bill proposed by opponents of rental car safety for consumers.

Measure to Permit More Rental Cars Under Recall Draws Fire 

July 9, 2015 — 9:55 PM SAST Updated on July 10, 2015 — 4:16 AM SAST

A U.S. Senate panel unveiled a plan to roll back protections consumers get when renting cars with potentially lethal safety defects, an approach a safety advocate called a step backward.

Under a bill introduced Thursday by Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the Commerce Committee, rental-car companies would be able to offer vehicles with unresolved flaws as long as they disclose the defects in writing to the renter.

Consumer groups have pushed for laws to prevent rental of defective cars. Legislation such as the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act was considered by the Senate committee as recently as 2013 but never became law. The panel this year switched to Republican control.

“This is going backward,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a safety group based in Sacramento, California. “This would be worse than existing practices for 95 percent of the industry.”

The Senate Commerce plan could cause car-rental companies such as Hertz Global Holdings Inc., Avis Budget Group Inc. and Enterprise Holdings to drop policies they adopted calling for the completion of all recall repairs before renting vehicles, Shahan said. Other companies wouldn’t have an incentive to adopt such policies, she said.

Because most companies don’t rent cars under recall and there are some state prohibitions already in place, the bill won’t roll back any current consumer protections, Commerce Committee spokesman Frederick Hill said in a an e-mailed statement. It wouldn’t preempt stronger state laws or stricter policies rental-car companies already have in place, he said.

“This provision would establish a new pro-consumer requirement that the recall status of a vehicle must be disclosed before renting,” Hill said.

The National Automobile Dealers Association is studying Thune’s legislation, said Jared Allen, a spokesman for the McLean, Virginia-based group.

The group in 2013 had concerns about the attempt to ban rentals of all recalled cars, he said. The dealers had been working with Senator Charles Schumer, the bill’s sponsor, on changes that would mitigate the economic impact on consumers and small businesses, Allen said.

In a May 2013 hearing, NADA argued that less than 10 percent of recalls sought by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were deemed serious enough to recommend that consumers stop driving until their cars are repaired.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers cited the possibility that rental-car companies could seek damages from automakers over delays in getting recall parts.

Alliance Chief Executive Officer Mitch Bainwol, who lobbies on behalf of General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and 10 other automakers, said at the 2013 hearing legislation to stop renting defective cars would be harmful to consumers because dealerships would repair the rental cars before their customers’ vehicles.

The Houcks — Raechel, 24, and Jacqueline, 20 — died in a 2004 crash involving a rented Chrysler PT Cruiser. The car had been subject to recall for a defective power-steering hose that hadn’t been repaired. The women lost control after the hose caught fire and the car collided with a tractor-trailer.

“The promise of life my talented daughters held was snuffed out in a matter of seconds,” Cally Houck, the women’s mother, told the commerce committee in 2013. “Why didn’t the rental car company fix this defect before renting out a vehicle that was a ticking time bomb?”

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