How to Protect Yourself from a Potentially Deadly Rental Car

What every consumer needs to know before they get behind the wheel.

November 15, 2010, 5:25 PM

Dec. 3, 2010— -- As holiday travel plans pick up, there still is no federal law requiring rental car companies to fix recalled vehicles before handing the keys to consumers.

It turned deadly for sisters Jacquie Houck, 20, and Raechel Houck, 24, whose rented Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise in Santa Cruz, CA was under recall notice from Chrysler with the warning that the power steering fluid could leak and result in an underhood fire. The warning became a reality when the sisters were driving home up Highway 101 and the PT Cruiser engine went up in flames.

"All the black, noxious smoke would go immediately fill the engine compartment, so you wouldn't be able to see," their father Chuck Houck said. "You wouldn't be able to breathe." He said they had no steering ability as the car caught fire, and Raechel swerved across the median strip into an oncoming truck. Both girls died instantly.

Rental car drivers should specifically ask the agent at the car rental company to check out a car's vehicle identification number (VIN), said Ditlow, who has been petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to mandate that rental car companies fix recalled vehicles before renting them out.

"Ask the agent there to please check their computer system to see if there is an outstanding recall on it.," said Ditlow. "Enterprise knew that they car that they rented to the Houcks was subject to one. And if you put them on the spot and ask them, they may in fact do that check and give you another vehicle."

Ditlow said "every outstanding recall can be checked on the spot."

After an ABC News investigation reported the story of the Houck sisters, whose family spent five years in court fighting Enterprise, another of the country's huge rental car companies, Hertz changed its policy and now no longer rents out vehicles affected by recall notices. The other major national car rental companies still have not.

U.S. safety officials 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 has sent letters to GM, Chrysler and Ford for details on the recall repair status of nearly three million cars that are commonly rented.

Brian Ross Investigates

Enterprise ultimately admitted its negligence in the deaths of Jacquie and Raechel Houck, and their parents turned down a $3 million settlement that would have prevented them from talking about the case publicly. Earlier this year, a jury returned a verdict of $15 million against Enterprise.

"The public has a right to know the - whether this car is safe to get into," their mother Cally Houck said. "We had a right to know. If we don't try to get this before the American public and to consumers, our daughters become a mere statistic."

In a statement to ABC News, Enterprise said it has to evaluate each recall on a case-by-case basis, because there are so many of them. But Ditlow said that's not enough.

"We want every single rental car and rental truck company in this country to repair a vehicle before they rent it," Ditlow said, adding that car rental companies that still don't have policies prohibiting vehicles under recall from being rented to consumers are "putting profits ahead of safety."

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