Parents traveling with young children face more challenges than they used to. When they rent a car, for example, they also have to rent a child safety seat. They depend on the car rental agency to offer a safe and reliable seat, but shouldn't just assume they'll get one, as consumer Debbie Dubrow discovered.
Dubrow, her husband and two small children flew from Seattle to San Diego in December, renting a car and two child safety seats from Advantage Rent A Car. The seats, she says, had obvious problems.
"Some seats were obviously missing parts. Some were obviously very old," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We installed two of the better looking seats thinking that they were okay only to find that they were not working.
"One was missing the top part of the harness that would secure the child in a crash, the other had a seatbelt that wouldn't tighten enough to secure our child. It took us quite some time to find working seats to install," she said. "The seats were also filthy, with huge black marks on some and dirt or crumbs on others."
Dubrow says that when she complained to the rental car manager, he offered to refund the money for the seats, but otherwise offered no help. It wasn't just a matter of poor customer service, she says, it was a violation of the law.
"In California, there are clear laws regarding child safety seat rental. These old, non-working seats were not only unsafe, they were also against the law," Dubrow said.
Dubrow didn't take the experience sitting down. She blogged about it, gaining the attention of a TV station in San Diego, which reported on her experience.
As a result, she says, Advantage performed a company-wide inspection of their car seats, destroying any that did not meet the legal guidelines. The company has also instituted a company-wide Child Safety Seat policy to ensure that they rent only safe, clean car seats in the future.
"The problems were really obvious," Dubrow said. "I don't have any knowledge about car seats beyond what a well-informed parent would have after purchasing their own seats and using them daily. In my opinion, it is something that Advantage employees should have recognized."
The take-away lesson for parents, she says, is to never assume that a car seat is safe, simply because a company is renting it.
"If you see a company putting people at risk, take action to make it better," Dubrow said.
What to do
Dubrow says parents need to know how to check a rental for safety. Here's what to look for:
• Inspect each seat thoroughly for any evidence of cracking, twisting, worn harness webbing or broken buckles.
• Verify that seatbelts are threaded through the proper channels.
• Once you have latched the buckles, pull hard to make sure that they do not detach.
• Find the "birth date" label on the side or back of the seat, and don't use a seat more than 5 years old.
• Get a copy of the car seat manual
"I was shocked at how many parents responded saying 'I've seen that before.' I'm hopeful that my story will inspire others to take action," Dubrow said.
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