Enterprise Rent-A-Car Blinks in Battle with California Mom

Photo: U.S. safety officials have launched an investigation to determine how quickly car rental companies repair vehicles that have been recalled for safety issues.
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Under pressure from a mother who lost her daughters in the crash of a recalled rental car, the nation's biggest car rental company said today it had changed its stance and would back a new federal law banning the rental of cars recalled because of safety risks.

"In the past we believed that this step was unnecessary," said Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, "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."

The announcement came after Cally Houck, whose daughters died in a recalled car rented from Enterprise, launched a petition drive earlier this week calling on Enterprise to drop its opposition to the law. By Thursday, according to Change.org, the organization hosting the petition on-line, more than 100,000 people had signed the petition.

"I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to this," Houck told ABC News. She said she wanted to make sure that Enterprise was "sincere," and that the company would accept the proposed law as written. "Then we will celebrate," said Houck. "Not a moment sooner."

Houck said she had started the signature drive "to keep this from happening to another family and to be sure that my daughters' memory is preserved." She alleged that Enterprise had both opposed the bill and lobbied against it. Bryant confirmed that Enterprise had opposed the bill, but did not address whether the company had worked against it.

Hertz, the nation's second largest rental car company, announced earlier this week that it had reached a deal with a consumer safety group to support federal oversight of rental car recalls. A spokesman for Avis, the third largest company, told ABC News it was "currently reviewing and discussing the Hertz proposal."

While Enterprise had said as recently as Wednesday afternoon that it opposed the new law, proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Charles Schumer later this month, Bryant said Thursday afternoon that Enterprise was "announcing its formal support for federal legislation to oversee the way car rental companies manage the safety recall process for vehicles in their fleets."

The nation's rental car companies together own more than 1.5 million vehicles, with hundreds of thousands subject to recall in any given year. The law proposed by Sen. Boxer, D.-California, and Sen. Schumer, D.-N.Y. would stop care rental firms from renting out cars that are subject to federal safety recalls until after they are fixed. The senators attached the law as an amendment to a transportation bill that is up for vote in Congress later this month.

As featured in a 2010 ABC News report, Houck's two daughters, 24-year-old Raechel and 20-year-old Jacquie, were killed in 2004 when the Chrysler PT Cruiser they rented from Enterprise apparently began leaking steering fluid and suddenly caught fire before crashing into an oncoming semi-tractor trailer. The car had been under a safety recall for the potential fire hazard, but was still rented to the sisters. The Houck family sued Enterprise, and after a lengthy legal fight, the company admitted negligence and was required to pay $15 million in damages to the family. After the ABC News report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation to see how quickly rental car companies repair vehicles that have been recalled.

WATCH the original ABC News report.

Before announcing that Enterprise had decided to support the law, spokeswoman Laura Bryant had said the Houck accident was a "terrible tragedy," and that customer safety was Enterprise's "top priority," but that the company didn't believe legislation was necessary.

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"[A] number of respected individuals, including elected officials and regulators, [believe] additional oversight of the recall process may be needed," said Bryant Wednesday. "While we believe this well-meaning legislation is unnecessary and based on inaccurate, obsolete data, our company continues to work with these individuals and organizations -- including NHTSA and the auto manufacturers -- to find common ground and produce a solution that addresses everyone's concerns."

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