Car Rental Companies Face Tough Decisions Over Safety and Security Issues

By Michael Klazema on 5/10/2018

The list of terrorist attacks perpetrated using a vehicle as a weapon grew one entry longer at the end of April as five people were killed by a 25-year-old driving a rental van in Toronto. The incident puts front and center the difficulties inherent in screening dangerous people during the rental process. Now a concern in North America, this is an issue policy-makers in Europe have already taken up in the wake of a string of similar attacks. 

The use of rental vehicles to commit crimes is no new phenomenon. In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out using a rental truck packed with explosives. However, the increase in the number of vehicles driven purposefully to harm others has fostered a sense of urgency as both governments and the rental industry grapple with the need for more effective screening methods.

In some nations, authorities have turned to technology for potential pathways to solving this problem. Swedish researchers have begun considering using technology to remotely monitor a vehicle's GPS location to command its onboard computer and limit the car’s top speed. The hope is that these efforts would reduce the likelihood of a mass casualty event. 

Live alert systems, which would allow rental agencies to know about blacklisted individuals quickly, are in the testing phase in some countries. Policy changes designed to make it more difficult for potential attackers to rent a vehicle, such as refusing to accept cash or requiring a business affiliation, may also help to reduce the frequency of these threats.

Others have suggested rental agencies should employ criminal background checks to screen rental applicants for potential red flags. A national security check like the National Security OneSEARCH can check an applicant against a wide variety of lists, such as Interpol's Fugitive List and the FBI's Most Wanted. While governments do not typically disclose terrorist watch lists to businesses such as rental agencies, efforts are underway to create more open lines of communication to better equip companies with the tools they need to limit risk. 

Could better safety precautions prevent these situations? The answer is unclear. The driver of the vehicle in Toronto was not known to police and had no criminal record. Drivers of other rentals used in attacks in Europe were not always known to the police – but when they were known, it did not preclude them from renting a vehicle. These instances may indicate the possibility of increased safety through better vetting procedures.

Even a state level background check by could equip a business with important information to use in decisions aimed at keeping the public and their own staff safe. Finding a solution that works reliably will take time — and a willingness on the part of both governments and businesses to cooperate in creating a fair system that works.

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