Is Your Rental Car Safe? What to Check Before Driving Off the Lot

Without hesitation, you can probably estimate the next time you'll need to change the oil or rotate the tires on your car. And that last manufacturer recall? You took care of it ASAP. But when you need to rely on a rental car, the maintenance history isn't so clear.

What do rental car companies do to ensure your temporary ride is safe and road ready? Turns out, quite a bit. We talked to a few car-care experts and automotive-rental companies to learn the inside scoop on how rental cars are maintained to ensure driver safety day in and day out.

car on a country road

Source | Caleb Whiting/Unsplash

Rental car inspection standards

When a vehicle joins the fleet at an automotive-rental company, it's subject to safety inspections each time it's contracted out to a new driver.

For example, the Hertz Corporation has implemented the Hertz Clean & Safe protocol for rental-car maintenance at its suburban and airport locations in the United States. The 35-point checklist is shared with customers before they drive off the lot.

The thorough inspection includes both cleanliness and safety features, including a test of the windshield wipers, proper functioning of all seat belts, and a check of the tire tread. You can browse the full checklist here.

Handling automotive-safety recalls

In addition to tackling routine maintenance, car-rental companies are notified of safety recalls that may affect their cars. Automotive manufacturers send recall details directly to rental businesses to stay in compliance with the the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

At Enterprise Rent-A-Car, all vehicles involved in recalls are taken out of the fleet and placed on hold until the "manufacturer's specific remedy or an authorized interim repair has been implemented."

What drivers can do themselves

As a savvy driver, you can also give a rental car a quick inspection before signing any agreements and driving off the lot.

Pat Goss, MotorWeek TV's resident master technician and automotive-repair-shop owner in Maryland, along with corporate trainer and rental-car safety advocate Frank J. Whyte, have a public list of tips to get you on the road.

  1. Call your car-insurance provider and ask about your policy. Does it cover roadside service calls? Accidents? If not, opt for the optional insurance from the rental-car company.
  2. Grab a flashlight and walk around the car with the rental agent. Look for safety concerns, including uneven tire-tread wear and under-inflation.
  3. Inside the car, do a quick test of the headlights, turn signals, windshield wipers, and dome light.
  4. Identify an inflated spare tire, lug wrench, and jack.
  5. Locate the owner's manual in the glove box. This will include pages of troubleshooting tips, information about dashboard symbols, abbreviations that may not be familiar, and more.
  6. Use paper towels to do a quick check of the fluid levels, including oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power-steering fluid, and windshield-washer fluid.
  7. Finally, do a short test drive in the parking lot to make sure the car handles well, the brakes work properly, and the car isn't making obvious unwanted noises.

The National Safety Council also recommends choosing a rental vehicle that you're able to handle. If you usually drive a compact car, a full-size pickup truck isn't the best match. If possible, ask for the make and model that you usually drive for optimal comfort and vehicle operation awareness.

Sure, the rental staff might think you're overly thorough, but it's your safety at hand. You wouldn't leave for a road trip without ensuring your car is mechanically sound, so why skip out on ensuring a rental car is ready for the road?

Do you have more tips to share? Tell us how you check that a rental car is road-ready in the comments.

Last updated June 6, 2018