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Is that rental car safe to drive?

Dec 29 (Reuters) - When you rent a car, there’s a chance the vehicle has been recalled and, if it has been, that it hasn’t yet been repaired. That’s at the heart of a battle over whether the rental car industry should be required to fix cars before sending them out with customers.

Meanwhile, consumers are left to figure out for themselves whether they’re at risk. Some companies, such as Hertz, say pull all recalled cars from their fleets until they are repaired. But others, including Enterprise Holdings - operator of Enterprise, National and Alamo - defend their safety decisions as sound but stop short of committing to pull all recalled vehicles off the road until they’re repaired.

“During this holiday season, people who are renting cars should not have to worry about being rented a vehicle the rental car company knows is so unsafe, (because) it is under a safety recall,” says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. “It is illegal for auto dealers to sell unrepaired recalled cars.”

In today’s world of smartphones and easy Internet access, concerned consumers can take a few simple steps to reassure themselves about the safety and recall status of the cars they rent.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s SaferCar.gov Website has a search tool that allows consumers to find all vehicle recalls by year and make. When you know what kind of car you’ll be renting, check the site. If it has been recalled, ask if the problem has been repaired; the agent should have access to specifics about the recall.

If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, request a different vehicle. Since no consumer laws cover this situation, it is between you and the rental agent to find an acceptable solution.

In Washington, legislators have attempted to require that rental cars be pulled from fleets when they are recalled, and not returned until the specified repairs are made. But that legislation, proposed earlier this year by New York Senator Democrat Charles Schumer, has stalled.

California Senator Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, tried to attach the provision to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s annual re-authorization, but was forced to withdraw her amendment during the Commerce Committee’s deliberations. She has said she will try again when the NHTSA funding bill comes before the full Senate.

CONSCIOUS OF SAFETY

The industry group the American Car Rental Association, which has been trying to fend off this legislation, says it agrees that as a matter of policy, cars should be repaired before they’re rented out. However, they believe there should be an exception to that which would allow the rental of cars determined to be safe to use in the interim, since not all recalls are of equal import.

The association also maintains it isn’t fair to only dictate to its industry how recalls should be handled without including other fleet owners, such as taxi and limo services, which would continue to be exempt from the repair requirement.

The association says its member companies are safety conscious and can determine, along with the manufacturer, when a repair is immediately needed.

The rallying point for the consumer effort to impose repair requirements on the rental car industry followed the 2004 deaths of sisters Raechel and Jacquie Houck. The pair rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise, which had been recalled over the possibility of engine fire. Their vehicle burst into flames and crashed into an oncoming tractor trailer. The sisters, who were in their 20s, died instantly. The family sued the car rental company, which last year settled the case by admitting 100 percent liability.

Enterprise says it is safety conscious.

“As a result of the rapid increase in the number and frequency of automobile safety recalls in recent years, in particular the massive Toyota recall of early 2010, the rental car industry has made significant changes and improvements in its processes for inspecting and repairing recalls,” company spokeswoman Laura Bryant said in a statement.

Hertz also opposes the legislation.

“While we acknowledge the tragic 2004 accident and agree unrepaired recalled cars should not be driven, we do not understand why car rental has been singled out for federal regulation among all commercial and private car owners,” Hertz spokesman Richard Broome says. “For many years, it has been Hertz policy to never rent vehicles which have been recalled until repaired. Over the years, we have grounded hundreds of thousands of vehicles under this nationwide policy.”

Of course, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of vehicles for travelers to rent.

According to data collected by Auto Rental News, the U.S. rental car industry has some 1.76 million cars in service, and is projected to have record revenues of $22.4 billion in 2011.

That should leave some room for repairs.

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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