Why can’t car rental companies give the “all clear” when you return your vehicle?

If you think the recent series of stories about car rental companies charging customers for “damage” to their vehicles is troubling, then you’re not alone.

I’m bothered by it, too. And so is Christopher Hill, a reader and frequent car renter.

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But he’s got an idea: Why not close the loophole on these frivolous claims?

He writes,

This afternoon, when I returned my rental car to Dollar in Washington, the representative Jason (who was the fleet manager), made a quick walk around the car, printed off a receipt and handed it to me.

Keeping in mind the number of consumers that have been getting billed for damages after they return home, I asked Jason if it was written anywhere on the receipt that the car was returned with no damage.

He answered, “Yes, your total is right there at the bottom.”

Huh? I responded that while the receipt did indeed show a total, I would like it to state somewhere that there was no damage.

Jason told me that they didn’t have the ability to do that. So I reached in my pocket and pulled out a pen which I offered to him as a solution, and asked if he would write on the receipt that there was no damage and sign it.

Now he told me that if there had been any damage, I would have had to fill out a damage report there on the spot, and that the fact that I was handed a receipt was my proof that there was no damage.

Again, this goes against the experiences of several of your other readers, which I mentioned to Jason. He responded that while policies may differ from one company to another, the policy of Dollar was to identify and document any damage at the time the customer returned the car.

It’s understandable therefore, if this truly is the case, that consumers are left uncertain of how best to protect themselves, when they get a different story from each rental car company, if not each different employee. When you rent an apartment, you typically will conduct a move-in inspection and move-out inspection and both will be signed by the tenant and the landlord. So why should it be any different with a rental car?

I agree. We’ve debated this issue in the comments previously, with car rental representatives insisting that they needed more time to go over the vehicle to determine if there was any damage, and lawyers claiming that the return receipt was, in effect, the “all clear” document that trumped any future claim.

There are a few solutions, as I see it. The first is that a car rental company should automatically take a digital photo of every car before and after it is rented. Hertz said it was going to do this last summer, but I’ve followed up several times to find out how the program is being implemented, only to be met with complete radio silence. The other is a standard release to be signed by a car rental company representative when you return the vehicle, that specifically releases you from any future damage claim.

Chances are, both options are too expensive. The digital cameras add to a location’s costs and to the time it takes to process a rental car. And the waiver would effectively end a car rental company’s ability to pursue a claim for damages that are “discovered” after the rental, whether they are legitimate or not.

These two steps could also shut down the cottage industry of third-party damage claim services that work with car rental companies to squeeze every available penny from insurance companies and renters.

Something tells me it’s not gonna happen.

(Photo: Howared Lake/Flickr Creative Commons)