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Is Your Holiday Rental Car Safe?

As if making it through the TSA's scan-or-pat-down challenge and squeezing into a ridiculously crowded plane isn't enough to get your Thanksgiving travel blood pressure up, now comes word you might want to worry a little about the safety of the rental car you're going to pick up. On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it was looking into how quickly rental car companies handle recall repairs.
The news of the NHTSA rental car repair audit comes on the heels of a petition to the Federal Trade Commission from two car safety advocacy groups -- The Center for Auto Safety and the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety -- to prevent Enterprise Rent-A-Car from knowingly renting out recalled cars that have yet to be repaired. That petition follows a settlement from earlier this year when Enterprise admitted liability in a 2004 accident in which one of its offices rented out a PT Cruiser that had been recalled for an underhood fire risk, but that had yet to be repaired. The two women who rented the car subsequently died in a traffic accident.

In a statement after the settlement was reached, Enterprise pointed out that at the time of the fatal accident "neither Chrysler nor the NHTSA recommended grounding the more than 400,000 PT Cruisers recalled in 2004....Instead, owners were asked to contact their local dealers to schedule a service appointment." Greg Stubblefield, Enterprise Executive Vice President added: "Given all we have learned, today we would ground the recalled PT Cruiser until repaired...That is why we continue to work with our employees and automobile manufacturers on ways to improve our policies and procedures for handling recalls."

Incredibly, it turns out there is no law on the books that prohibits recalled cars from being rented out even if the repairs have yet to be made. Just like individual car owners, rental fleets are left to make their own judgment on how quickly to get a recalled car into the shop and fixed. Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association, did tell The Detroit News that "you pull those cars and you park them..It's just foolish for anyone to risk a lawsuit, death, or injury. It's just stupid. You don't do it."

But a spokeswoman for Enterprise -- which also owns Alamo and National -- told The Detroit News that "in most cases, we place a 'hold' on recalled vehicles so they are not rented until the recall work is completed." Notice she used the word "most," though, and not "all."

New York Senator Charles Schumer recently joined the bandwagon to make sure all rental car firms fix every recalled car before handing over the keys to a customer. "If automotive dealers are not allowed to sell recalled vehicles without first fixing the safety issues, then rental car companies should be held to the same standard." Meantime, here are a few things you should be doing to play it safe:

Check for recalls before you rent. The NHTSA is now auditing the repair history of the fleets of all the major car rental firms. But the investigation is only focused on recalls of American-made models between 2000 and 2009, given that most rental car fleets are U.S. cars. That said, before you make a reservation, you might want to scan the NHTSA's online database of all ongoing recalls -- domestic and foreign brands included -- to see if any model you are considering is on the list. If it is, why not just switch your rental to another model?

Know what you're really renting. While car safety recalls are relatively rare, MoneyWatch car expert Jerry Edgerton points out a safety issue that impacts all car renters: Don't assume a shiny new rental car has the same anti-lock braking system as your own car. Some rentals just have the standard braking system. In bad weather, knowing the right way to handle your rental is a very important safety issue to always be aware of.

Photo courtesy Flickr user reservasdecoches
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