U.S. Senate Passes Rental Car Safety Bill

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, July 30, 2015

Today the U.S. Senate voted to enact the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act, as part of the DRIVE Act, which will provide long-term funding for transportation projects across the nation.

The rental car provision was the only part of the bill relating to safety that both sides of the aisle agreed on.  The Safe Rental Car Act (S 1173) was included in the bill that Senator John Thune (R-SD) proposed and was adopted unanimously in the Commerce Committee.  Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) played leading roles in championing the measure.

The Senate passed the larger bill on a vote of 65-34.  While the House still has to act, the strong bipartisan support bodes well for final passage.  The Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have requested that Congress give the agency the authority to police recalled rental cars and used cars.

The rental car safety portion of the bill was introduced as separate legisltaion, S 1173, named after Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two sisters, aged 24 and 20, who were killed in 2004 in a recalled Chrysler PT Cruiser that caught fire and lost steering.  Since 2010, their mother, Cally Houck, has been working closely with Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) for passage of legislation to protect the public from unsafe recalled rental cars.  The rental car industry itself, including Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, and other major rental car companies, plus many smaller rental car companies (except Rent-a-Wreck) and the American Car Rental Association, have been actively supporting the bill, working with Cally and CARS for passage. However, the bill was stalled until now due to opposition from auto manufacturers and car dealers.

After Senate passage, Houck said, “”It’s heartening to see the act named for my beautiful, talented daughters pass with resounding bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate. I’m optimistic that we will finally succeed in making it a violation of federal law for a rental car company to rent or sell a recalled car before it’s repaired and safe to drive.”

The legislation would make it a violation of federal law, enforceable by NHTSA, for rental car companies to rent or sell unrepaired recalled cars.  Once the companies receive the safety recall notice, they would have to ground them pending repairs.  The Senate bill would give NHTSA the authority to fine the rental car companies or invoke other sanctions if they violate the law — even if no one is injured or killed.  This new protection would be in addition to existing protections under other provisions of the law, including state laws that Cally and Raechel and Jackie’s father and their attorneys used to sue Chrysler and Enterprise.

“When consumers and families drive a rental car off the lot, they should be able to do so with the confidence that car is safe to drive. We’re one step closer to that peace of mind today,” McCaskill said in a story published by Bloomberg News on July 15 after the bill passed in the Commerce Committee.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Capps (D-CA), speaking on the House floor, called on Chrysler to stop opposing the rental car safety bill and join GM and Honda in supporting it.  Chrysler manufactured the defective PT Cruiser that killed the Houck sisters.  It has persistently opposed the legislation.

Capps is championing enactment of the House bill, HR 2198, that is identical to the Senate bill that was included in the larger transportation bill.  The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Walter Jones (R-NC) Jan and Schakowsky (D-IL).

The Senate rejected an attempt by the opponents of the rental car safety bill — many auto manufacturers and car dealers — to legalize rentals of recalled cars with “disclosure” — which would have undermined existing protections and shifted liability onto victims of unsafe recalled rental cars.

If passage of the legislation had not been delayed for years, due to opposition from the auto manufacturers and car dealers, it might have saved the life of Jewel Brangman,  26, who was killed in a fender bender on Sept. 7, 2014.  She was driving a recalled 2001 Honda Civic with a Takata air bag that exploded with excessive force and severed blood vessels in her neck.

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