Motorists see them everywhere -- cameras snapping the license plates of drivers who violate red lights, fail to pay a toll or speed through a school zone.
But there’s a group of billion-dollar business that doesn’t have to worry so much about cameras enforcing the rules on Washington roads.
A KING 5 Investigation reveals the rental car industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade on campaign contributions and lobbying in Olympia. Over the same period, the industry won favorable treatment in every Washington law governing tickets derived from automated cameras and license plate readers. The laws specifically shield rental car companies from paying tickets for:
- Red light camera violations,
- Evading bridge and road tolls,
- Parking tickets,
- School bus safety cameras,
- tickets from private pay lots
Through public records requests to the Seattle Municipal Court, the KING 5 Investigators determined that rental car companies have more unpaid parking tickets that any other business or individual. The biggest names in the industry –- Enterprise, Hertz, Alamo, National, Avis and Budget -– have more than 2,100 unpaid parking tickets during the 18-months after Seattle raised its street parking rates to among the highest in the nation in 2011.
Including penalties, the loss of revenue to Seattle taxpayers from all of these unpaid tickets could be as high as $150,000.
“Hearing that rental car companies have gotten a 'get out of paying my tickets free card’ is just wrong,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, a Democrat whose district includes north Seattle.
“I also think it’s on the back of city officials to explain, 'Why the heck have you let the rental car companies get away with this?'” said Pollet. Seattle officials never complained about the state laws to him or asked for a change, he said.
State law says registered car owners are responsible for paying traffic infractions and tolls, no matter who was driving at the time of the violation. There's a special exemption that "relieves a rental car business of any liability” if the company provides to the ticketing agency the name and contact information of the customer who rented the car. From there, the court enforcing a traffic or parking violation is expected to recover the fine directly from the customer.
But rental car companies are not always following the law. A spokesperson for the Seattle Municipal Court said the 2,100 unpaid tickets written on cars owned by rental companies are instances in which the companies did not forward the customer information to the city. Therefore, the spokesperson said, the rental companies remain responsible for the fines.
Another state law may be the reason why rental car companies aren’t compelled to pay those fines. Revised Code of Washington 46.20.270 protects rental car companies from the measures the state Department of Licensing uses to pressure car owners to pay traffic and parking fines.
DOL can withhold vehicle registration, license tab renewal, or the issuance of a new driver’s license to any registered vehicle owner with two or more unpaid tickets -- unless the vehicle is “leased or rented under a bona fide commercial vehicle lease or rental agreement.”
“There should be the same rules for everybody,” said Andrew Felix.
DOL withheld Felix's driver’s license and tabs when he moved to Washington earlier this year. He had an outstanding ticket in another state.
“I don’t understand how they got this through, repeatedly,” said Rep. Pollet of all the exemptions written into Washington state law favoring rental car companies.
Pollet said KING 5's findings prompted him to draft a bill that would remove the rental car exemption from RCW 46.20.270.
“When the rental car companies go to get their tabs renewed, like everyone else, they don’t get their tabs unless they pay their bill,” said Pollet. “They’re big. They can afford to pay.”
Records from the state Public Disclosure Commission show that the rental car industry made $173,545 in campaign donations to legislative candidates and to the Democratic and Republican campaign committees over the last ten years. These include contributions to some of the biggest names in Washington politics -- $3,150 to former governor Christine Gregoire, $6,650 to her two-time opponent Dino Rossi, $5,200 to Rob McKenna for his attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns, and $4,875 to House Speaker Frank Chopp.
During the same time period, the rental car industry spent $281,201 on lobbyists in Olympia. The total amount the industry spent since 2004 on lobbying and campaign contributions is $454,746.
The camera and tolling exemptions for rental car companies originated in the transportation committees for both the state House and Senate. The co-chairs of the Senate transportation committee –- Curtis King (R-Yakima) and Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) -– declined to speak with KING 5.
The House chair, Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), said that she could not recall being lobbied by the rental car industry on camera-enforcement or tolling legislation. Records show she received $4,200 in campaign money from rental car companies.
Clibborn said she believes the reason the exemption language keeps showing up in legislation is because it has become “boilerplate” wording in traffic laws. She said language from existing laws is often cut and pasted into a new traffic law for uniformity.
That’s what state Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) said happened with legislation he sponsored last year. That bill, which includes the favorable rental car language, allows school districts to install cameras on their buses that would photograph motorists who drive around the stop sign and flashing lights that buses engage when they stop to drop off or pick up children.
Hobbs said he is now looking at revamping the bill, which has already passed into law.
“I don’t think we should allow these people who have violated our laws to get away with it,” said Hobbs.
Hobbs, who received an $800 campaign donation from Enterprise in 2009, said he believes rental car industry lobbyists have been active for legislation other than cameras and tolls. For example, he said the companies have been trying to insure that stadium taxes in King County that heavily impact rental car fees expire as planned and are not extended by lawmakers.
In 2004 and 2005 Cendant Corporation, the former parent company of Avis and Budget, was the most active contributor in Olympia. In more recent years the torch has passed to EAN Holdings, which owns Enterprise.
EAN refused KING 5’s repeated requests for an on-camera interview.
EAN, which tops the list of unpaid parking tickets in Seattle with more than 750, donated $112,870 to Washington state politicians and party committees since 2004. The reported record profits last year on earnings of more than $15 billion.