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Rental Car Safety & What To Do In An Accident

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Both rental cars and rental agreements can be confusing.  Who really understands things like “damage waiver” and “supplemental liability insurance” provisions?  In the unlucky event that you have an accident, THEN, you'll want to know all about those clauses, the contract's fine print and what to do next.   

As a modern day traveler, you’re probably familiar with this scenario: you get off the airplane – perhaps tired and hungry – find the rental car desk, sign the agreement, hop in the car, and away you go.

While trying to get your bearings on unfamiliar roads, you’re reading signs, and blindly groping around for the right knob to turn on headlights, window controls, adjust the temperature, etc. 

In short, you are committing every driving sin you’ve ever cursed at other drivers for displaying.

The first and most important thing to remember when you get in a rental car is this: you are not familiar with this car.

While it’s likely that you’re not familiar with your location and surroundings either, the fact that you are not familiar with this car is the biggest cause of accidents within a few hundred feet of the car rental parking lot.   Before you rent a car, make sure to consider the following;

  • Before you reserve a rental car, check with your insurance provider and your credit card travel protection to understand your current coverage for rental cars.   If you need supplemental car rental coverage – add it to your travel insurance plan when you buy it.

  • Check with your road service provider to see if your coverage extends to rental cars where you’re going.

  • Tuck a small flashlight or headlamp into your carry-on. You’ll need this to poke around in your rental car if you pick it up at night.

  • Have a camera with a flash available in your carry-on too – we’ll tell you why in a minute.

  • At the rental counter, ask the representative who you should call if the car breaks down or you lose your rental car keys. Note this number on your rental agreement or store it in your phone.

  • Get a few paper towels from the bathroom before you leave the rental car office – we’ll tell you why in a minute.

  • Before you leave the lot, you want to make sure that you aren’t held responsible for someone else’s damage and that the car you’re renting is relatively safe and well-maintained. Walk around the car and snap photos of all panels. If there’s damage, mark that down on your paperwork. The photos will come in handy if the rental agency tries to hold you responsible for damage later.

  • Visually check the tires to be sure they’re well inflated and that there is no significant uneven tread wear that could indicate a problem with the vehicle.

  • Check the odometer – if the car has more than 25,000 miles it’s considered a senior rental car and you should be suspicious of that as well.

  • Open the trunk and look for the spare tire and check that it’s properly inflated. Verify that there’s a jack and lug wrench for changing the tire as well (many tools disappear from rental cars).

  • Open the hood and check the fluid levels – this is why you brought the paper towels (and the headlamp if it’s dark). If you know how to check the oil, antifreeze, and washer fluid great; otherwise a quick visual inspection is probably all you can manage.

  • Get in the car, turn it on and let it warm up while you check that the gas gauge reads ‘full’ and adjust the temperature controls.

  • Familiarize yourself with the car. Adjust the seat and mirrors (rear-view and side mirrors), turn on the hazard lights, check the window controls, try the windshield wipers, the turn signals, the headlights, etc.

  • When you’re ready, take the car for a quick spin around the lot: turning, braking, and listening. If there’s a problem or a strange sound, it’s best to find out now before you get on the road.

  • If you’re unfamiliar with the area, consult your map or directions and/or engage your GPS. Most rental car agencies are away from the airport and if you take a wrong turn you could find yourself driving through baggage claim all over again.

  • If you want music, figure out the radio before you drive off the lot.

Dealing with a rental accident might be the last thing on your mind when you load up the car and drive off into the sunset, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. While handling an accident in a rental car is similar to what you’d do if faced with a collision in your own vehicle, it’s important to follow the proper protocol to avoid confusion and unnecessary paperwork.

Before you do anything else, make sure that everyone in the vehicle is ok. Check the surrounding scene and any other cars involved. If someone is hurt, call 911 immediately. If there’s a danger of explosion, clear the area. Set up emergency flares if necessary or call the police to help redirect traffic. As soon as you’ve determined that the scene is safe, exchange contact and insurance information with any other parties involved and take pictures of the damage incurred. Try not to mention that you’re driving a rental car, as some people may try to take advantage of the situation. Leave the scene as soon as it is safe to do so.

So far, these are the same steps you’d take if you were driving your own vehicle. However, with a rental, you need to deal with a bit of additional paperwork. As soon as possible, call your car rental company and inform them of the accident. There’s often a sticker with an emergency number located inside the glove box. Ask the company how to proceed – but be sure to read the fine print of both your insurance plan and any insurance provided by the rental company.

You’ll of course want to inform your own insurance company of the accident and ask whether they’ll take care of filing an accident report with the local police or whether this is your responsibility. If you don’t already know, ask your insurance company whether you have collision and comprehensive coverage in your policy in addition to the liability coverage required by law. Collision and comprehensive coverage protects the car you rent. You’ll also want to find out what your deductible is. A deductible is the portion of loss that you have to pay out of pocket. For instance, if your deductible is $400, and you incurred $10,000 worth of damage, you have to pay $400 in repairs, and your insurance company will cover the rest. Most rental companies require you to have a deductible of $500 or less or will ask you to buy extra insurance when you rent the vehicle. Be sure to inform your insurance company of any additional insurance you purchased with the rental.

If you didn’t purchase extra insurance or a collision waiver when you rented the car, your insurance company is responsible for paying the rental company for the car only if your active policy provides first party coverage. The payments will still be subject to the terms of your policy. This means that whether or not you were at fault, you must pay your deductible directly to the rental company, as the company is entitled to have the car fixed as soon as possible. Your insurance company is then responsible for going after the responsible party – if you were not at fault for the accident.

Restrictions on your policy can cause problems, the biggest being loss of use. If you don’t have rental coverage on your policy, you will owe rental expenses to the rental company as if you were still renting the car. This means that if it takes 4 days to repair the vehicle, you will owe 4 days of rental. Even if you do carry loss of use coverage in your policy, you’ll have to owe the difference to the rental company if the limit is below what the rental car would usually go for.

Your accident claim will be handled differently if you purchased extra insurance or a collision damage waiver.

If you bought extra insurance (either from the rental company or your credit card company), be sure to read the fine print on both the additional insurance and your own policy. Some rental insurance policies provide complete coverage in any accident as long as you pay the premium. This means that they would cover the cost of the car that you hit (if you were at fault) and the rental car damage. However, you might still have a deductible from your own insurance policy, which will usually serve as a secondary form of coverage if the rental car insurance policy limits are low. Read both policies together to see who will pay first and who second.

A collision damage waiver releases you from the agreement you make when you rent a car that in case of an accident, you are responsible for paying for the car. However, even if you purchased a collision damage waiver, you must still file a claim for your medical bills in case of injury and for the car you hit if you were at fault.

Getting into any sort of accident, whether in a rental car or your own vehicle, is never pleasant. The most important thing is to make sure that everyone involved is safe and to be in a calm, collected state of mind when you approach the paperwork pile.

If you or a loved one is injured in an accident, contact the attorneys at LDM&M.   Acting promptly to preserve your rights is essential after any accident.  For over 40 years, the attorneys at LDM&M have been helping individuals across Wisconsin receive the legal satisfaction that they deserve.  Contact our offices for a free, personal consolation.