Hertz agrees to federal oversight on recalled rental vehicles

A major rental car company recently announced its support for regulations on rentals of recalled vehicles, while another company appears apprehensive.

Leading the effort for regulation is an Ojai, Calif., woman whose two daughters were killed in 2004 when their rented Chrysler PT Cruiser crashed and caught fire. The vehicle had been recalled due to a faulty steering unit but was rented before being repaired.

Hertz has reached an agreement with advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety that calls for Congress to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversight of recalled vehicles owned by rental companies.

In addition, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., support an amendment to a transportation bill that proposes the same guidelines.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which is at the center of the years-long controversy, says it supports federal legislation but does not say it explicitly endorses the co-sponsored bill.

"We are committed to finding a solution at a federal level and finding a way to make this work," said Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for the company. "We have every intention of working on this in good faith, and we want to see this concluded and legislation agreed upon."

Raechel Houck, 24, and Jacqueline Houck, 20, were returning to Santa Cruz, Calif., after visiting their parents in Ojai when their rented PT Cruiser crashed and caught fire on Highway 101 near King City. They were killed.

Enterprise rented out the vehicle even though it had been recalled and not repaired. The recall involved a faulty power steering hose that could lead to fires under the hood.

Auto dealers are barred from selling recalled vehicles before they are fixed, but the law does not apply to rental car agencies. A jury awarded the Houck family $15 million after a civil trial in which Enterprise lawyers tried to blame the driver, Raechel Houck, for the accident.

Since the June 2010 verdict, the sisters' mother, Carol, has paired with Consumers for Auto Reliability to support a federal bill. A bill introduced in the California Legislature last year apparently has stalled.

Houck launched a petition campaign at www.change.org to get Enterprise to support the legislation. The petition has garnered almost 130,500 supporters.

Houck called Enterprise's announcement "pure spin."

"Unless they support legislation as it is written, then their announcement is meaningless," Houck said. "We're not going to redraw the map. We have a really good map."

She said that since Hertz agreed to support the bill, she expected the same from Enterprise.

"It's a good agreement, and (Enterprise) is being deliberately vague," said Rosemary Shahan, consumer group president.

Houck sent the signatures of support to a consumer group in Missouri, where Enterprise is based, and representatives from both sides recently met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter.

(Cindy Von Quedow is a reporter for the Ventura County Star in California.)

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