Reckless in rentals

By | March 22nd, 1999

Rental cars ought to come with warning labels. That way other motorists would know which cars to avoid.

While highway safety statistics don’t separate rentals from regular cars, it’s pretty obvious that a vast majority of out-of-towners aren’t on their best behavior when they get behind the wheel. Otherwise, why would rental companies be pushing for new laws that would limit damage awards and reduce their liability in rental car accidents where the driver is at fault? In Florida, a state that has almost as many rental autos as visitors, the bill is widely expected to speed through the legislature.

Florida’s franchisees are the ones who pushed to remove the helpful tags warning of rental car drivers. Remember Miami’s snipers who were picking off tourists during the early ’90s? Car rental companies concluded that the criminals were preying on visitors, so they promptly removed all of the markings that would have tipped off the killers.

But peeling the stickers from the autos didn’t work to everyone’s advantage. Now these careless drivers can terrorize the rest of us anonymously. (Ever shared a rental car with someone – and heard the words, “Hey, it’s just a rental!” gleefully exclaimed after striking a curb or cutting off another car?) These days, the only protection against rental car drivers is a textbook familiarity with every rental company’s inventory. And who’s got the time to learn all that?

Look no further than the airport if you want to know why car rental customers get so crazy. After all, air rage is a close cousin to road rage. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that passengers who leave their flights frustrated would let their fury out on the highway.

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And if, by some remote chance, they had a pleasant flight, then the treatment at the hands of the rental agent could set them off. When’s the last time a car rental company charged you the same rate it quoted you over the phone? Or when did the franchisee actually have the car it promised you?

Although Jan Armstrong won’t bet on the air/road rage theory, she’s willing to concede that people drive their rental cars differently. “It gets a lot of laughs when someone mistreats their rental on Seinfeld,” says the consultant, who is the former executive vice president of the American Car Rental Association.

“But the truth is that most customers aren’t Jekyll and Hydes, ” she says, “It’s a very small percentage of renters that abuse their car. Most people don’t get into a car and say, ‘OK, this is a rental I’m going to beat the holy bajeebers out of it.'”

Asked about the reckless renters, JP Morgan car rental analyst David Bradley told me the accident rate is a sensitive subject among car rental companies. “If a car rental company sees its accidents going up, it will do some research and let’s say there are more accidents happening in a convertible. Well, the company will stop renting convertibles,” he says.

Dollar Rent A Car risk management director Joe Mowry blames the higher rate of “incidents” involving rentals on unfamiliar driving conditions. “You’re not driving in your hometown. You’re not driving in your own car. In some cases, you’re a foreign driver who is used to different rules of the road.”

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Whatever the cause of reckless rental car driving may be, the least that car rental companies can do is give us fair warning. Bring back the bumper stickers.

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