Believe it or not, the biggest buyers of new and used cars in America is not your average Joe on the street, the government or even big multinational corporations. It’s the rental car industry. They lease over a million vehicles, every year, and also sell thousands of used cars every year. And that brings up one very big problem: recalls.
The Challenges With Rentals and Recalls
Recalls make rental companies shudder, because they can ground thousands of cars for weeks. For example, during the massive Toyota recall in 2010, 22% of the entire rental fleet was under recall. It’s an enormous undertaking to bring literally thousands of vehicles to an authorized repair facility, fix them, and get them back on the road. This situation is complicated by the fact that every day a car is off the road, it’s costing the rental agency money in the form of depreciation fees. And, like any large endeavor, there are problems with tracking; a car might be fixed, but not marked fixed, or the franchisee holding the vehicle might think the car has been fixed when it hasn’t.
Or the franchisee might simply not care, or think the problem is too minor to warrant the financial losses he’ll face if he takes the vehicle off the lot. This goes all the way up to the executive level: committees at the top of big rental agencies will look at recalls, and see if they can apply an interim fix that will keep the car on the road until it can be fully fixed. This may sound ominous, but it’s not: for example, when one recall found that floor mats were making an accelerator stick…they just ordered their franchises to remove all the floor mats from that particular vehicle model.
Why? Because realistically, grounding the cars means a long wait. Even though they own their own garages, the problem becomes one of volume: there’s only so much a mechanic can do in a day. Documents provided by the rental companies pretty much say it all: not a single one managed to fix all of its recalled vehicles within a year.
No Safety Features, Either?
A bigger problem? Rental vehicles may not have the safety features of consumer-purchased cars; if a safety feature is optional, it’s unlikely that a rental car will have it, in order to keep overhead down. Anything from electronic control stabilization to side curtain airbags might not be in the car you’re driving. Although, we’d have to think that some of the cost of these safety features would be offset by reduced car insurance rates.
The rental industry, of course, is pretty vigorous in protesting their case: for example, part of the reason they can’t hit a 100% recall fix rate is because they simply sell the cars before a recall notice comes in. And they point out those safety features are, indeed, optional, and they have to keep overhead down. None of this is stopping consumer safety advocates for pushing for federal legislation to make rentals safer.
How to Protect Yourself
In the meantime, protect yourself with some common sense:
– When looking at cars, check to see if the year and model has any recalls, and if so, for what. Consider renting another vehicle if it does.
– Ask the salesperson which safety features are installed in the cars. If you’re not happy, ask to be switched to a safer car for the same price: there is no "upgrade fee" and it’s entirely at the salesperson’s discretion what to charge, so haggle them down to zero.
– Be prepared to walk away. If you don’t feel safe in a vehicle, don’t drive it.
Practice this and you’ll be safe on the road, no matter what percentage of their vehicles the rental agencies have fixed.