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Rental Car With Air Bag? Agencies Can't Guarantee : Rentals: While most full- and mid-size cars are now equipped with the device, new vehicles won't be required to carry them until 1997.


When my wife and I bought a new car seven years ago, we limited the search to the very few models that offered air bags. Safety was our overriding criterion--and we were willing to pay extra for it.

Funny how things turn out, though. So far, we've put less than 30,000 miles on our sedan. But on out-of-town trips, I've driven at least three or four times as many miles in a long string of rental cars, only a few of which have had an air bag. Many times I have reminded myself ruefully that the expensive air bag parked back at home wouldn't do me much good in an accident while I'm on the road.

And that's the crux of the problem facing safety-conscious travelers today. Right now, there is no way to absolutely guarantee you can rent a car equipped with a driver's side air bag--even with an advance reservation. The best the phone agents at the major U.S. car rental firms will do is note your request on the reservation record. They can't promise you a car with an air bag, they say, because they have no way of knowing whether an equipped car will be on hand at the rental location when you want to pick it up. Some firms add that the request usually can be honored.

That's the polite but not very helpful response I got last month when I phoned six car rental firms anonymously, telling them I wanted to rent a car with an air bag in Seattle. The firms were Hertz, Budget, Avis, National, Alamo and Thrifty, and their responses varied only in the depth of concern they showed for my request. The Budget agent tried hardest to satisfy it.

But renting a car with an air bag is by no means impossible, and the task is going to get easier in 1994 and in subsequent years. In addition, air bags for the front-seat passenger will become standard equipment on rental cars in the next few years, and increasingly, rental cars are coming equipped with anti-lock brakes--another important safety feature.

All the firms told me that renters are more likely to get a car with an air bag if they book a full-size or luxury model, since car manufacturers have made air bags a standard feature on most larger cars. Fewer mid-size cars come equipped with air bags, and only a relatively few compacts do, and the fleets of the car rental firms reflect this descending availability. Finding a car with an air bag for both driver and front-seat passenger is even more difficult since the combination is standard equipment on only a few cars.

Not surprisingly, renting a bigger car to get an air bag will cost you more money. Budget, for example, quoted a one-week rental in Seattle of $139.79 (unlimited mileage) for a mid-size car. But the rental agent I talked to could not assure me that a mid-size car with an air bag would be available for the pickup day I requested. He suggested reserving a full-size car, such as a Mercury Sable, because more of Budget's bigger cars have air bags. The weekly rental for a Sable, built with both driver and passenger air bags as standard equipment, was $179.79.

Is the $40 extra charge worth the protection of an air bag? That's a decision individual travelers must make. But what if your employer pays for the rental, as mine often does? Is a business traveler justified in booking a bigger, more expensive car for safety reasons? You will have to fight that one out with your company's travel office, but here's backup ammunition.

Accident and injury statistics indicate big cars are safer than small cars, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va. The institute is a research organization sponsored by many of the nation's insurance companies.

When I pressed the Budget agent for an absolute guarantee on a car with an air bag, a promise he declined to make, he offered one other option. If I really insisted on an air bag, he suggested I call the Seattle rental desk directly, talk to the manager and see if the manager would guarantee an air bag, either in a mid-size or full-size model. Travel agents tell me this approach sometimes works.

The rental agent for one company, Thrifty, said I probably would get a 1993 Dodge Spirit if I reserved a mid-size car. But her computer did not tell her whether the Spirit comes equipped with a driver's air bag as a standard feature. It does, as do all U.S.-built Chrysler Corp. cars, which Thrifty features.

As of Sept. 1, 1997, the problem of finding a car with air bags should be moot. By that date, all new cars sold in the United States will be required to be equipped with an air bag for the driver and for the front-seat passenger.

About half the models on this year's market--mostly larger cars--have a driver's side air bag as a standard feature and about two-thirds of the 1994 models are expected to have them when the new cars begin appearing in the fall.

At the moment there is no law mandating anti-lock brakes on new cars, says O'Neill, but consumer interest is prompting manufacturers to offer them either as a standard or optional feature.

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