Warning: the Danger of Winter Car Rental
Just 30 miles into our drive, we knew we had a problem. And it was about to get a whole lot worse.
It was December and we were in Utah. Snow began to fall as we drove toward Bryce Canyon for a day of hiking in the national park.
Flicking on the wipers resulted in a smear of snow, salt and dirt. A second pass of the blades was the same. The windshield was a mess. On the interstate. In a snowstorm.
Wiper fluid only seemed to add to the muck. We knew we couldn’t safely drive 90 more miles with only 30% of the windshield clear.
But we also knew we had to at least drive to the next exit to find a service station and figure out our windshield options. So we sprayed more wiper fluid for another pass of the blades as we looked for an exit.
And that’s when we realized the gravity of the situation: the rental car company had sent us into wintery conditions with a car that was not prepared for winter!
There was no antifreeze (technically, methyl alcohol) in the windshield wiper solution. We were essentially creating a thin layer of muddy ice each time we tried to clear the windshield. Each effort to improve visibility had actually been reducing it. To the point of danger.
Fortunately, because we have lived in several climates with varied driving conditions, we quickly understood the problem and stopped thinking more wiper solution would clear our screen. So, at the very least, we were no longer making our situation worse as we drove on toward help.
What we did not realize was that our brother-in-law, traveling in a rental car behind us, was also given a non-winterized car. And because he had lived all of his driving life in warm climates, he was not aware that wiper solutions vary in their abilities to withstand sub-freezing temperatures. So until he received our text that we were pulling off to clear our windshield, he was still attempting to clear his screen by spraying more fluid onto it. Resulting in less and less visibility, and increased danger, as he drove.
The Immediate solution
The story ends with our whole group getting our windshields clear enough (with just one windshield cracked in the process) to safely drive to the nearest rental car office, where we traded in our un-winterized cars for weather-worthy equivalents. So the debacle ultimately only cost us a lot of frustration and two hours of lost hiking time.
Side note: Yes, we were smart enough to try adding winterized wiper solution to our cars before insisting on trade-ins. Unfortunately, the amount of summery solution in the reservoirs diluted the freeze-proof solution we added and ice continued to form.
The averted danger
We realized how lucky we were. If it had taken longer for us to realize what was causing the problem, or more cars had been on the road, or any number of factors had been slightly different —say, a deer on the road, black ice, etc—, the oversight on the part of the rental car company could have had serious, even fatal, results.
The long-term solution
To be sure we never encounter this issue again, and to help other travelers know what they’re facing, we contacted the major U.S. rental car companies. We asked for their SOP’s for preparing cars for winter weather conditions.
Use their responses (below) to decide what further precautions you may or may not need when renting a car in winter.
Please note that these are quotes from customer service representatives from January 2019. Companies may update their policies at any time; it is a good idea to check for updated policies when renting in winter.
Note: companies are listed together when one owns the other or they are under the same ownership.
Enterprise, National, Alamo
“An ice scraper or snow brush should be in every vehicle. The branch is supposed to also be prepared other items such as the increased usage of washer fluid and should check the tire pressure too.
“The tires on the vehicles will be all-weather tires unless we are required by law to have winter tires.
“Vehicles from warm climates do go to cold climates so the vehicles from the warm climates should be prepared for the winter as well to ensure customer safety.”
—Jonathan, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Customer Service
IMPORTANT NOTE: because washer fluid was not identified as appropriate for sub-freezing temperatures in the original response (it was only mentioned that additional quantities would be needed in winter), we followed up to clarify the freezing point of the washer fluids used. We received this response:
“We do not have that kind of information as the different regions may use different vendors for their supplies. Also, some branches have the vehicles serviced by third parties, such as oil and lube stations, so that would be a variable as well.
”I personally have worked for the company for five and a half years, assisting anywhere between 1,500 to 2,500 customers per month, and I have never heard of the windshield wiper fluid being reported as frozen.”
—Sarah, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Customer Service
“In the United States all Budget vehicles are equipped with all-season tires as suggested by the manufacturer. Snow chains are not to be installed on Budget vehicles, due to potential damage from the chains.”
—Michael W., Budget Customer Care
NOTE: We sent a follow-up request for information regarding washer fluid, ice scrapers and snow brushes. We received this response:
“Unfortunately [we are] not able to provide you with this information as this depends from location to location as mentioned, to fully review this, we recommend [renters] contact the location which you want to rent for them to provide you with the necessary information on the vehicle features and equipment.”
—Louie R., Representative, ABG Customer Service
Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty
“In winter-weather markets our Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty cars are equipped with a snow brush and/or ice scraper as well as a windshield wiper solution specifically designed for clearing ice and snow.”
—Lauren L., Communications Manager
IMPORTANT NOTE: these preparations were mentioned as being made in winter-weather markets. We followed up regarding the instances of cars rented in warmer climates being driven into wintery conditions. We will update this post when a response is received.
These representatives were told beforehand that the information they provided would be used in an online post.
A caveat… and a plan
While all of these responses indicate some degree of preparation of cars for winter conditions, one of these companies was actually the one involved in our story. Meaning a few cars may slip through the cracks when a company is preparing its fleet for winter.
Therefore, when we next rent a car during winter, we will contact the branch before picking up the car, asking for confirmation that the car is prepared for winter driving conditions. We will do this via email, so we have a written record of the exchange.
We hope this post brings awareness and increases safety on the roads in winter. Safe travels!
Have you had any aha-moments in winter driving conditions?
Or maybe a rental car story that others should know?
Tell us about it in the comments!
Please know that we cannot publish comments where a specific company is named. The goal of this post and all comments should be to bring awareness to potential hazards, not seek revenge on a given company.
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