As the busiest travel holiday of the year gets underway, U.S. safety officials have launched an investigation to determine how quickly rental car companies repair vehicles that have been recalled for safety issues. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has sent letters to GM, Chrysler and Ford asking for details on the recall repair status of almost 3 million cars that are among the vehicles most commonly rented.
NHTSA says the crackdown was prompted by "incidents involving allegations of personal injury and death" allegedly caused by "safety defects" on rental vehicles, including a 2004 case documented in an ABC News report in which two sisters died in a PT Cruiser rented from Enterprise that had been subject to a safety recall.
No federal law requires that rental companies fix recalled cars before handing the keys to consumers, and as the ABC News report documented, not all firms have policies in place to ensure that vehicles under safety recall are repaired before they're rented.
Executives from Enterprise, the country's largest car rental company, admitted that recalled cars were sometimes rented without being fixed during testimony for a lawsuit filed by the parents of Raechel and Jacquie Houck, sisters who died when their rented Chrysler PT Cruiser caught fire and hit a truck on a California highway.
"When demand called, we rented out recalled vehicles, it happened, I won't lie," said Mark Matias, a former Enterprise area manager in San Francisco, in an affidavit filed for the case in 2008. "If all you have are recalled vehicles on the lot, you rent them out. It was a given. The whole company did it. Enterprise's corporate offices look the other way regarding this fact."
Other Enterprise executives testified that there was no companywide policy requiring cars under recall to be held back from rental.
At the time of the ABC News report, neither Avis nor Hertz had such companywide policies either, according to their spokespeople. Both companies said they assessed safety recalls on a case-by-case basis, and work closely with the car manufacturers to make sure repairs are done in a timely manner.
Paula Rivera, public affairs manager for Hertz, now says the company's policies have been "streamlined" since the ABC News report and that Hertz will no longer rent vehicles under safety recall to the public until they are repaired.
Avis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, the parent company of National, Alamo and Enterprise, said the company had not changed its policy since the ABC News report in July, but that it had "grounded" Toyota and Pontiac Vibe vehicles earlier this year without any government mandate or manufacturer order, and that Enterprise grounds vehicles whenever a manufacturer expressly recommends it.
"We, of course, are willing to cooperate with the Federal Trade Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in any inquiry they wish to make concerning our current practices," said Laura Bryant of Enterprise. "We are confident those practices and procedures are fully consistent with our commitment to provide customers vehicles that are safe to drive."