Ojai, CA – In the small Southern California town of Ojai, Cally Houck sits in her office. It used to be home to her law practice, but these days she uses it for conference calls and to meet with reporters. "I'm somewhat semi retired due to this cause I've advocated, the reform of this rental car industry." Houck's semi-retirement came after her two daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline, died in a car crash on highway 101 in Southern Monterey County. It was in 2004. They we're driving an Enterprise rental car when Raechel lost control, crossed the median and hit a semi head on. It turns out their rental car had been recalled for the very defect that caused the crash, and Enterprise had failed to fix the problem. "With a little fact checking, we were able to determine that Enterprise had received the recall. During the course of our litigation, we found out that this particular PT Cruiser had been rented out three times prior to my daughters renting it and after Enterprise received the recall," said Houck.
According to Auto Rental News, our nation's highways are home to an estimated 1.6-million rental cars. Monterey Bay Area Assemblyman Bill Monning says those cars abide by a different set of rules. "A new car seller could not sell a car with that recall on it, but we have a loophole where rental car agencies can still rent a recalled vehicle," said Assemblyman Monning. Monning's bill would change that by requiring that all rental cars under safety recalls be grounded until repaired. "In other words, they have to repair the defect, the safety risk before they can rent it to a customer," he said.
But the rental car industry is fighting back. Although industry representatives would not do an interview for this story, they did voice their opposition before the Assembly Judiciary Committee earlier this month. They stressed that all safety recalls are not the same. Most don't suggest the owner immediately ground the car. Rather the owner schedules an appointment to make the repair. Plus they added that rental car agencies already have recall policies that ground unsafe cars. And in the case of Enterprise, a spokeswoman says those policies have changed since the Houck crash. "My response to that is great. This legislation won't hurt you. It will help level the playing field. If you are already protecting your customers from unsafe vehicles you have nothing to fear from this legislation," said Assemblyman Monning.
The American Car Rental Association has its own proposal. It's a two tiered system that would ground some recalled cars, but allow others to continue to operate as long as repairs were made within a designated time period. "The two tiered system would make a mockery of the current federal recall process. It's not a broken process. It's worked effectively to save lives," said Houck.
Houck tries to advocate for the bill as a consumer. She understands not all lawmakers are swayed by personal tragedies. Still it's her daughters that motivate her to get this legislation passed in California and then nationwide. "If I had died in a rental car, I know they'd be doing the same thing I'm doing," said Houck. On the federal level, Senator Charles Schumer has announced similar legislation.