Texas Rep. Williams gets partial car dealer exemption in transportation bill

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin RON T. ENNIS

It was a hard-fought battle on a difficult issue: requiring rental car companies and auto dealers to fix cars under recall notices before letting the public use them.

For Cally Houck, whose two daughters died in 2004 in California in a rental car accident, the faulty steering wheel system under recall notice was to blame – but so was the rental company.

A provision named for her daughters is part of the transportation bill that Senate and House conferees announced Tuesday they had reached agreement on. It would require most rental car companies and some dealerships to make repairs before renting or loaning the cars.

The FAST Act also adopts a hard-fought victory for rental car safety pushed forward by the dogged determination of Cally Houck, whose two daughters, Jacqueline and Raechel, were killed in a crash caused by a recalled but unrepaired rental car.

Jackie Gillan, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

The partial exemption for rental agencies and car dealerships – exempting those with 35 vehicles or fewer for rental or loan, up from five – was in reaction to a last-minute amendment made by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, himself a car dealership owner in Weatherford, Texas.

Williams got the House to pass a total exemption for car dealers, arguing that it was an onerous regulation and that the companies would not let clients use dangerous vehicles.

The final bill, which cannot be amended but must still be passed by the House and Senate, specifies that the recall provision applies to car agencies, including dealerships, that have 35 or more vehicles, effectively exempting smaller dealerships.

“The provision included in the House/ Senate bipartisan conference agreement is a victory for small businesses which have suffered tremendously under an administration that holds the self-righteous belief that government knows what is best for the American people,” said Williams in a statement.

Williams’ role drew the attention of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, which asked the House ethics committees to review the conflict-of-interest rules.

But for advocates of auto safety, it was an emotional victory to secure the safety provision.

“I am deeply moved that we included the Raechel and Jaqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act in the bill to protect consumers from leasing unsafe recalled rental vehicles,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“I’m thrilled that we’re finally close to passage of the Rental Car Safety Act named for my beautiful, treasured daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline. But I’m worried about the loaner car loophole for car dealers and remain committed to closing that dangerous safety gap,” said Cally Houck.

Rosemary Shahan, President of Sacramento, Calif.-based Consumers of Auto-based Safety and Reliability said, “The exemption has nothing to do with safety. It’s a special favor for dealers.”

The bill covers a wide range of transportation issues, from highway funding to railroad improvements and public transportation.

“I expect this bill to have a huge amount of support throughout the country from businesses and workers alike,” said Boxer. “Although it is not perfect, I believe it is a major accomplishment for our people who expect us to fund a top notch transportation system.”