One house of the California Legislature on Thursday narrowly approved the nation's first law to force rental car companies to pull vehicles off the road after a safety recall.
Assemblyman Bill Monning introduced the bill after the deaths of two young sisters from California in a fiery rental car crash in 2004. They were driving a rental car that had been recalled because a leak could cause a fire in the engine compartment. The rental car company had been notified about the defect a month before the fatal wreck.
"We want to make sure that tragedy is not visited on another family," the Monterey Democrat argued on the state Assembly floor.
The Assembly passed the bill Thursday on a 42-26 vote, one more than the simple majority needed. It now goes to the Senate.
The proposal has faced stiff lobbying by rental car companies, which say the bill unfairly singles them out but doesn't apply to taxis or other fleet vehicles. They also contend that a national standard is needed, and that some recalls pose a more severe safety threat than others, so they should be given flexibility in how to address the problem.
Some lawmakers Thursday picked up those themes. Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, said the bill could force rental car companies to pull a significant part of their fleets off the road for a problem with a windshield wiper or climate-control knob, for example.
"If this bill related to life-threatening defects, recalls that are life-threatening, that would make sense," he said.
The tragedy of the crash that killed Raechel Houck, 24, and Jacqueline Houck, 20, should be addressed, Calderon said, but "it's just a bill that goes too far."
In a sudden rainstorm, a windshield-wiper problem becomes a very serious safety issue, said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles. Feuer called on lawmakers to look at how the issue affects drivers, not businesses.
The Houck sisters were killed when the steering failed on a Chrysler PT Cruiser they had rented from Enterprise in central California. The car crashed into a truck and caught fire. Their mother, Carol Houck, of Ojai, testified in committee that the car had been rented at least three times after Enterprise received the recall notice. The Houck family filed a wrongful death lawsuit and Enterprise defended itself for five years before acknowledging negligence. A jury last year awarded the family $15 million.
Enterprise Holdings and other major car rental companies have been lobbying in California and in Washington against recall-related measures, arguing that they have stepped up safety efforts since the Houck crash. Some recalls, they contend, can't be fixed without a hard-to-get part, but in many cases vehicles can be driven safely until the part is available.
The industry cites recent Toyota recalls over sudden acceleration that were ultimately fixed by installing a shorter gas pedal. In those cases, they note, the vehicles could be safely driven until the repair was made if the driver's floor mat was removed.
"The industry really hates the bill," said Rosemary Strahan, president of Sacramento-based nonprofit Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, which sponsored it. Strahan and Monning's staff said they were open to continued discussions with the rental car companies for possible amendments before the Senate considers the bill.
The industry knows that some elected officials and regulators believe there should be stronger oversight of recalls, and "we're going to continue working with them to see if we can find some common ground," said Christy Conrad, spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, based near St. Louis.