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Posted On March 19, 2015 Current Events and News

Recalled Rentals: Is Your Loaner Car an Accident Waiting to Happen?

There’s something your rental company isn’t telling you: your car might still have serious safety defects. Don’t assume a recalled car is fixed before you rent it. 

Last year was a record year for safety-related car recalls. If your car wasn’t among the tens of millions of vehicles with potentially deadly defects, you might have breathed a sigh of relief and not given the news another thought.

However, you might not be as safe as you think you are, especially if you find yourself renting a car. Whether you’re behind the wheel of a loaner vehicle for a vacation or while waiting for an insurance company to sort out your property damage claim after a crash, the unfamiliar car could be an accident waiting to happen if it was recalled but not yet repaired.

A Lack of Urgency in Recall Repairs

In 2014, automakers recalled more than 62,000,000 cars for safety defects. Many had faulty ignition switches that could suddenly cut off electrical power to your car as you drove, leaving you unable to steer, stop, or even rely on your power airbags to protect you in the almost inevitable crash.

Other cars had defective airbags that would fail completely, deploy with dangerously excessive force, or – perhaps most frightening – rupture violently at random and hurl metal shrapnel into unsuspecting drivers’ vulnerable bodies.

There were cars that were fire hazards, cars with defective fuel gauges, cars that had steering problems, cars with brakes that failed suddenly, and cars where the sensors in supposedly smart seat belts malfunctioned so that airbags deployed improperly. It seemed that if you could imagine a dangerous defect, however bizarre it might sound, there was already a recall related to that danger.

With more than 700 recalls issued during the year, it seemed like automakers couldn’t announce recalls fast enough. (In fact, manufacturers like General Motors and Hyundai faced fines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration precisely because they didn’t issue recalls quickly enough – some risks had been known for years, but the cars were never recalled). Yet these companies weren’t exactly quick in actually performing the repairs.

How Recalls Affect Your Rental

Privately-owned cars aren’t the only ones still awaiting the parts to fix safety defects. Rental cars have the same vulnerabilities. While some rental companies will keep recalled cars off the road until the safety problems are fixed, not all do. A massive recall can ground as much as one-third of a company’s fleet and cost it tens of millions of dollars in lost business if the company commits to keeping all of those vehicles out of the hands of would-be renters, Fortune reported.

The cost is one deterrent from making the safe decision, but there’s no federal legal requirement that rental companies protect their customers from recalled cars – a fact that, some lawmakers and advocacy groups say, needs to change.

“If a new car is recalled for a safety problem, it’s illegal for a dealer to sell you that car until the issue has been fixed,” according to Consumer Reports. “However, no similar protection exists for a person who buys a recalled used car or rents a recalled car. Under current federal law, rental-car companies and used-car dealers are not required to fix a defect—or even tell you about a problem—before you drive the vehicle off the lot.” That means your recalled car could have a deadly electrical problem, brake problem, or airbag problem, but you’re driving your family around in it, completely unaware of the danger.

Think the chance of actually getting hurt because of a recalled rental is a longshot? Think again. In 2004, two sisters died when their rental car, which had been recalled for a fire hazard (but never repaired), actually caught on fire. That tragic story has inspired previous legislation, but no proposed laws governing recalled rental cars have been successful so far.

Last November, a woman sustained serious injuries – but survived, thankfully – when the airbags failed in the car she was renting, one of the millions of cars recalled for airbag problems. It can and does happen, and it could happen to any one of us.

Regulating Recalled Rentals

This isn’t a new problem – lawmakers and advocacy groups have been pushing for a law to this effect for years – but the massive number of recalls last year has made the issue more important than ever.

Will support from inside the industry be enough to make this common-sense proposal into a law? Is 2015 the year that rental companies will finally be forced to protect their customers from recalls? This is one legislative battle worth watching, the outcome of which could make everyone on the road safer.