Is your driving record clean? Car rental firms are checking

September 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Hertz, Avis and other car rental companies are using electronic links to government computers to check driving records of potential renters. And because of the screening, which takes seconds, the companies are turning away 6 to 10 percent of the people who want cars.

Some are rejected because their licenses have been revoked or suspended. Others have valid licenses but the companies think their records over the past few years make them high risks.

Hertz began the practice in New York City in the summer of 1992 and other companies have followed, in part for fear of attracting the people whom Hertz considered unsafe. The system is now in use in Maryland, New York, Florida and Ohio, and is expected to spread by the end of the year to California, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

Some customer advocates worry that computer errors may cause some customers to be denied cars unfairly; others argue that the rental companies have no right to turn away drivers who have valid licenses.

But the industry says it must protect itself, not only from damage to its cars but also from suits by third parties who are hurt by rented cars.

"There is no legal right to rent a car," said Jan Armstrong, executive vice president of the American Car Rental Association, a trade association based in Washington.

What concerns the rental companies are "vicarious liability" laws, in force in New York and several other states. Under these laws the owner of a car is financially responsible for accidents that kill or maim third parties, even if the accident was caused by the renter.

When a potential customer presents a driver's license, the data goes through the car rental company's central computer that quizzes the computer in the motor vehicle department of the appropriate state.

A company, TML Information Services Inc., gets the record and analyzes it according to standards set by the rental car %o company.

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