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Bad Driver Record May Wreck Trip : Car rentals: Companies step up checks for high-risk drivers, who could be denied a car at the rental counter.

August 08, 1993|JACK ADLER

If you have a spotty driving record, renting a car may soon be more difficult in some states.

A sampling of major U.S. car rental companies revealed that agents are now examining the driving records of potential renters more closely to weed out the bad risks and reduce high-liability losses suffered over the years in certain states. However, criteria for renters can vary among companies.

Consumers should keep in mind that the checks of driving records by the car rental companies are made at the time the autos are picked up, not when the booking is made. Thus, consumers with reservations may not learn until they arrive at the rental counter that they have been denied access to a car.

Hertz, at the forefront of this movement since it began last year, recently started checking the driving records of renters with California-issued driver's licenses.

Hertz also examines the driving records of renters with licenses issued in New York, Florida, Ohio and Maryland. According to spokeswoman Annalise McKean-Marcus, Hertz paid out $24 million in liability losses in New York state in 1991, the last year it has full records available.

"We want to check driving records of renters in those states (where) we've experienced high-liability losses, and California has been among the highest," she said.

"Not all states open their driving records to this kind of search, and not all have their records automated for on-line accessibility," she added.

The reasons for imposing such checks are primarily economic, though they involve public safety as well, car rental companies argue. "Not only do we limit our liability costs," McKean-Marcus said, "but this is a sound public policy that reduces the number of high-risk drivers on the road."

Among the potential problem areas reviewed by car rental companies when inspecting driving records: whether a driver's license has expired or been suspended, revoked or ruled invalid; if there have been convictions for drunk driving, driving without insurance or moving violations; the number and type of accidents accumulated, and whether there has ever been failure to report an accident or leaving the scene of an accident.

"I think eventually, all the car rental companies will conduct such checks nationally," predicted David Sparks, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Budget Rent A Car.

Different rental companies have different policies regarding which drivers are denied rentals, though all of the companies use private firms to provide computerized checks of driving records.

"The check is made by punching in your license number on our computer," said the Hertz spokeswoman. "It takes from 20 to 30 seconds for the answer, just like with a credit card. The response would be either 'OK' or 'decline.' If it's the latter, it would state the number from our list of 10 reasons. Our staff then just checks our list and informs the renter of the bad news."

At National Car Rental, spokesman Mike Olsen also defended the recent practice. "There are plenty of statistics--both liability and safety--to support the need for such checks of driving records, which is why some states have opened their records to us," he said. The Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, reported that 6% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes last year were operating with a suspended or revoked license.

According to McKean-Marcus, Hertz also can inspect the driving records of potential renters in the state they are attempting to rent in, not just the one that issued the driver's license.

"For example, if you have a New York license and want to rent a car in Florida, we would check your driving record in Florida," she said.

Hertz also plans to check travelers with California licenses booking cars in Hawaii, although it has not yet determined when this practice will begin.

Budget Rent A Car currently reviews licenses in New York, Florida and Maryland. "We're looking at other states, and California is imminent, possibly later this year," said Sparks.

National is conducting checks in New York and Florida now, and also may add California later this year, according to Mike Olsen.

Avis is checking the driving records of potential renters in New York who have New York or Florida driver's licenses, said Demitria Mudar, an Avis spokeswoman.

"We're currently experimenting with checks of driving records of New York state renters at La Guardia Airport, but we expect to expand to other areas later this year," said Melodye Blancett-Scott, a spokeswoman for Thrifty Rent A Car.

In some cases, potential renters are advised at the time they make reservations that their driving records may be checked, but it's best to ask. Car rental companies say travel agents are also aware of the policy.

"Our staff will tell potential renters what the criteria (for rental refusal) are if they ask," said McKean-Marcus of Hertz. "But they may not volunteer this information otherwise. We pay a fee for the information, which is one reason we only make a check when the renter is at the counters. We also want to make sure we have the latest information, and that the person who made the reservation is the same person showing up to rent the car."

"It would be nice to make the records check at the time of the reservation, but the car rental industry has about a 25%-30% no-show factor, and we have to pay about $4 for each driving record check," Blancett-Scott of Thrifty added.

Consumers declined by National should ask for a manager who can access the computer to advise them of specific reasons for the decision, Olsen explained.

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