Warning! Your trip may be tracked

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

James Turner was shocked when he found $450 deducted from his bank account for speeding, especially since the fine wasn’t levied by police or the courts, but by the company that rented Turner a minivan for his weekend road trip.

Turner's court challenge of the rental company penalty drew him Connecticut’s consumer protection agency into the fray, and has sparked a hearing on the case. But the Canadian company which supplied the technology for tracking Turner’s trip said linking commercial vehicles to satellites for corporate and consumer protection is the wave of the future and has refused to halt the practice.

Last October, Turner, 44, a theater manager in New Haven, Conn. returned a mini van to Acme Car Rentals, a local company he’d rented from in the past. But this time, his bank statement showed the cost of his rental had more than tripled from $196 to $646 after the rental company slapped the charges on his debit card.

“I was stunned,” Turner said when he learned of the three, $150 speeding fines. “In my wildest imagination, I never thought something like this could happen to anybody.”

Turner won’t admit or deny he was speeding on the occasions noted by the car’s satellite monitor, but said he was “traveling at the same speed as the flow of traffic.”

Turner and his lawyer, Bernadette Keyes, took the case to Connecticut’s small claims court, challenging the fee. But when legal issues were raised over the legality of the fee, the court stayed the case while the state’s department of consumer protection investigated.

On July 2, consumer protection commissioner James Fleming charged Acme with violating the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, and ordered them to stop fining speeders and reimburse the 27 renters they’d already penalized.

Privacy violation?
The state agency charged Acme for initially failing to disclose the purpose of their satellite monitoring of the rental vehicles, and billing-related violations including penalizing customers when no damage was sustained by the company, and with not providing customers with an opportunity to refute the charges.

Acme lawyer Max Brunswick said the company will refund Turner’s money, but insisted the rental agency has the right to force consumers into driving within a speed limit.

Keyes, however, said the refund may negate the small claims action, but she is planning a new lawsuit against Acme for violating Turner’s privacy.

When Turner rented the minivan, he thought the satellite link in the car was for navigation purposes only, Keyes said, “he didn’t realize it would track him through seven states.”

While Brunswick has repeatedly insisted Acme only gets reports on violators and does not “track” its vehicles, Keyes said information disclosed to her as a result of the court case has shown “Acme does have a computer and can log on and check where you are at any time.”

“What’s even more disturbing” she added, are reports of car rental companies that can cut off a car’s engine by satellite, preventing it from being turned on, if the driver spends too long in a bar.

Connecticut’s consumer protection agency will hold a hearing into the charges against Acme on Aug. 22, Keyes said.

Certainly Acme, by deed if not by admission, was clumsy in its inauguration of the policy in October last year.

While the first contracts stated in bold letters that vehicles were now tracked by a global positioning service and speeders would be fined, Acme staff did not point out and explain this change to customers, nor did the contract define its speed limit.

Acme changed this policy a few months later, after Turner took the case to court, Brunswick said. Afterwards, Acme staff clearly explained the speed-limit penalty, he added, and the speed threshold was hiked from two consecutive minutes over 65 mph to two consecutive minutes over 80 mph.

The time limit, he explained, is to ensure drivers aren’t penalized for a burst of speed when passing another vehicle.

A safety and insurance issue?

Brunswick said the speed limitations were a safety and insurance issue, and not a way for the company to make more money. Acme, he said, nearly went bankrupt last year when their insurance company dropped them after their 100-vehicle fleet sustained $350,000 in damages.

Acme, he said, “needed an incentive to keep the (driver’s) speed down” because renters’ “just don’t take as much care with a car that isn’t their own.” As a result of the speed limit penalty, damage to Acme vehicles is down by 50 percent from the same time last year, Brunswick noted.

Acme still insists it has the right to enforce a speed limit on its rental cars, Brunswick said, and in that it has an ally in AirIQ, the Pickering, Ontario-based company that supplied Acme with the technology to monitor a driver’s speed.

Don Simmonds, AirIQ’s president and CEO, said General Motors is the largest supplier of satellite global positioning technology in the consumer market with their On Star system, while AirIQ is the largest supplier to the commercial market.

“We supply technology packages from which fleet owners can select various forms of reporting,” Simmonds said. This includes programs which set off an alarm when a vehicle hits a certain speed, reaches a maintenance mileage, or the company’s “most popular service,” when it’s driven past a designated boundary, he added.

Despite Acme’s problems in Connecticut, Simmonds said technologies like his that link satellite and wireless communications to track commercial fleets, are not just the wave of the future, they’re already here.

“The mobile assets of the fleet are the largest, single capital investment in that business and represent the highest risk of loss. This technology helps reduce those losses,” he added.

“We’ll see pervasive use of this technology in commercial fleets,” he predicted, because just as homeowners can set an alarm to go off if someone enters their house improperly, so vehicle owners have the right to an alarm if their property is misused.