Why go to the News? Why Not a Letter of Complaint?

Several people have asked me why I chose to work with local news instead of choosing another, less public route, to resolve our concerns over Advantage Rent-A-Car's child safety seats. My reasons are as much personal as pragmatic. While I'm not particularly thrilled with the idea of airing someone else's dirty laundry in public, I'm pleased with the end result: Advantage's San Diego office has destroyed their dilapidated and hazardous car seats and they've instituted a strong corporate policy governing car seats across all of their 150+ offices.

Several personal events influenced my response. Two summers ago, my son's palms were blistered with severe 1st and 2nd degree burns when he touched a shiny metal storefront on a hot day (so shiny and just his height). His pain was so extreme that he was given a morphine-like drug in the emergency room. The store manager told me that the injury wasn't something they considered important and it was doubtful that they would do anything to prevent it from happening again. Seven months pregnant and exhausted, I focused on controlling my son's pain, keeping his hands bandaged, and helping him heal as best I could. I tried repeatedly to reach someone at the company's corporate office to plead my case for addressing the issue, but I couldn't even get connected to the right person. To date, the storefront remains unchanged; no one has even bothered to put up a sign to warn parents of the danger. To this day, I feel guilty about not doing more.

In August of this year, my son was burned again in a Cole Haan store (an upscale shoe store owned by Nike) when he reached up to touch an exposed halogen light fixture at his height (but invisible to me). The burn was bad enough to blister, and he screamed uncontrollably while I yelled for help. The store manager surfaced about 15 minutes later and apologized, but stated "we can't fix that, it's the same in all the stores." After weeks of phone calls and email, I finally received email from the corporate office stating that they are "evaluating… (the lights) to make sure they are installed, maintained and operating as per the recommendations of the manufacturer." My attempts to follow up further were met with no response. The design remains unchanged to this day. Once again, I'd been brushed off, and once again, I felt powerless to solve the problem.

On top of that, add the slew of toy recalls this past year. It just feels like most companies don't care, even when there are laws in place, and fail to use good judgement otherwise. I've struggled with balancing my personal responsibility to keep my kids safe and the public need to holding companies accountable for the hazards they create.

While my kids weren't injured by Advantage Rent-A-Car's unsafe car seats, I promised myself that I wouldn't let this one slide. I can't bear the thought of what could happen if a child seated in one of those faulty seats was involved in an accident. The Advantage employees and office manager I talked with were so cavalier that I knew nothing would happen unless I took further action. This time, I thought I'd try something different. First, I documented the problem on my blog. My hope was that whenever anyone googled for "advantage rental car seat" that my article would show up, alerting parents to the issue. As of this writing, my article is the 1st search result for that search! Second, I reached out to other bloggers and news sites to spread the word. Worst case, I reasoned, was that if all this was as ineffective as my past efforts, at least the information would be "out there" for others to find.

10News in San Diego was the first to respond, and I'm truly glad that I worked with them. Felicia Kit, the producer and Lauren Reynolds at 10 News were great. They were professional, thorough, and careful. They did a lot more than I ever could have (or would have thought to do). They got the California Highway Patrol to take a look. They swabbed the seats for bacteria. They went through many of the seats knowing what to look for. They contacted ABC's Seattle affiliate and had them look for similar issues in Seattle. The 10News team thoroughly researched the problems and then sat down with the local branch manager to discuss what she had found. With all that information (and the weight of ABC News) behind her, she wasn't as easy to blow off as I had been. She also contacted the corporate offices before the story aired and gave them a chance to respond. The San Diego branch manager of Advantage Rent-A-Car promised her that he would clean up the car seat situation that very day. Advantage's corporate office responded by creating a new (and strong) corporate policy regarding car seat safety.

It remains to be seen whether Advantage's local branch offices will follow their new corporate policy over the coming years, but unlike past attempts, I feel like I've had a positive effect!

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  1. Katrina on February 11, 2008 at 3:18 p.m.

    I applaud your efforts to make our children safer. I wish that more people took a stronger stand when they encounter issues like this (and others that endanger not only their children, but others as well). I do not understand people questioning your methods or your motives. When lives are in danger (which they no doubt are given the evidence revealed) a letter of complaint is no where near sufficient to address the issue and provides little to no incentive to the company to actually address the problem. Kudos to you!

  2. Debbie on February 11, 2008 at 3:49 p.m.

    Thanks Katrina,

    It's been interesting to read the different responses (ranging from "you should have known not to trust a rental car agency" to "why didn't you just sue") And it's been rewarding to get email and comments from people like you.

    Honestly, though, it just feels terrific to have made a positive change. I'm also hopeful that as the story trickles out, other agencies will be inspired to make changes on their own.

  3. Joanna on February 16, 2008 at 3:18 p.m.

    As a CPST (child passenger safety technician), I always advise people to never use a rental agencies' car seats; you should always bring your own seats when you travel.

    Unfortunately, people will still rent car seats, and then we can only hope for the next best thing: that the rental seats are safe, clean, and undamaged.

    THANK YOU for pursuing this through the media. You put a spotlight on a poorly regulated and highly dangerous service provided to people.

    Few people seem to understand that car seats are more than just fancy baby-holders for cars. When they are properly installed, and properly USED, they can save childrens' lives in minor and severe accidents.

    When they are NOT properly installed, and NOT properly used, or if they are damaged, they can be death traps.

    Thank you!