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Senate OKs Rental Car Safety Bill Named for Sisters Killed in Crash

The Senate passed long-delayed legislation that would ban companies from renting cars that are subject to recall until the necessary fixes are made.
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Family and friends of two sisters killed in a 2004 rental car crash received a bit of good news on Thursday, when the Senate passed long-delayed legislation named in their honor that would ban rental car companies from keeping cars in operation that are subject to recall until the necessary fixes are made.

Shortly before heading home for summer recess, the Senate passed a 6-year highway bill that includes the terms of the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act. The House won’t deal with the measure until lawmakers return to the capital in September.

The two California sisters were killed in a crash of a Chrysler PT Cruiser they’d gotten from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Initially, the company attempted to blame 24-year-old Raechel, who was driving, going so far as to say she might have been “suicidal or on drugs.” But a jury later disagreed.

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In a 2010 verdict, a jury issued a $15 million verdict against Enterprise, concluding the company had failed to make fixes after learning of a Cruiser recall ordered because of a defect that could cause a driver to lose steering control.

A turning point in the case came when Mark Matias, who had served as an Enterprise area manager in San Francisco, near where the accident occurred, acknowledged in court that, “When demand called, we rented out recalled vehicles. It happened, I won’t lie.”

“Still more steps to go before we can declare victory, but this is a big deal getting the bill out of the Republican Senate.”

The Safe Rental Car Act, which was first introduced in 2012, would make it illegal for rental car companies to engage in what one dubbed “rental car roulette.” Vehicles would have to be immediately grounded when a relevant recall was issued, noted the grassroots group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

“Still more steps to go before we can declare victory, but this is a big deal getting the bill out of the Republican Senate,” says CARS President Rosemary Shahan.

Shortly after the 2010 jury verdict, Enterprise said it would voluntarily follow the policies now included in the bill named after the Houck sisters. Most of the other major rental companies, such as Hertz and Avis, have followed suit. But a few larger companies and some smaller ones have not signed on voluntarily, according to surveys by CARS and other safety groups.

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Chrysler, which manufactured the PT Cruiser involved in the Houck crash – and which was just hit with record fines for its poor handling of recent recalls – opposed the Safe Rental Car Act. Honda recently became the second manufacturer to support the measure, joining General Motors.

Proponents were hoping the Senate would go even further at a time when U.S. automotive recalls have been running at record levels. But the bill excluded language that also would have banned car dealers from selling used vehicles subject to recall unless they were first repaired.

It’s unclear how House lawmakers will respond when they return to Washington, but the Safe Rental Act is part of a broader Transportation Bill considered one of the top congressional priorities, given that the money it will appropriate is needed to keep the nation’s highways repaired and mass transit systems moving. A short-term, stop-gap bill will provide funding in the interim.

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