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U-Take Your Life In Your Hands
More great work from Alan C. Miller, who, with Myron Levin, is writing the LA Times investigative series on shoddy maintenance and its sometimes devastating consequences at U-Haul. (Miller won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the mechanical ills of the military's Harrier jets for the LA Times.) I read every inch of today's (part two in the series), at this link:

An older fleet

Among U-Haul's 100,000 trucks are many aging, high-mileage vehicles. Many have logged more than 100,000 miles. A recent court filing by U-Haul underscored the fleet's age: A company executive, referring only to the type of truck rented to Waldrip, said 4,595 of them were still on the road with 200,000 miles or more.

U-Haul has purchased about 38,000 new trucks over the last two years and has sold nearly as many older ones. But the company says it does not automatically retire vehicles at a fixed mileage or age.

Penske Truck Leasing, one of U-Haul's two major competitors, says that it replaces up to half its consumer rental fleet every year and that its oldest trucks are about 3 1/2 years old. Budget Truck Rental says the average age of its trucks is 2 to 2 1/2 years.

U-Haul relies on a far-flung network of independent dealers to supplement its 1,450 company-owned rental centers. This has added to maintenance problems.

Most of the 14,500 dealers have no auto service background. They include storage sites, mini-marts, postal supply shops, even liquor stores and laundromats.

Further complicating matters is U-Haul's practice of booking reservations without knowing if it will have trucks and trailers when and where renters want them. The policy leads to long lines of overwrought customers, creating pressure to get equipment back on the road quickly.

Twenty-four former U-Haul employees, including some who collectively oversaw hundreds of rental locations in California and other states, said in separate interviews that basic safety checks were often skipped because of thin staffing and the need to keep trucks and trailers rolling.

U-Haul mechanics on occasion have falsified repair records, listing work they did not perform — a practice known as "hanging paper," court records and interviews show. U-Haul says this is rare and never tolerated.

The company faces little regulatory scrutiny in the U.S., but Canadian officials have sharply criticized its maintenance practices.

From July 2005 through August 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation inspected about 800 U-Haul trucks and removed 20% from service because of such problems as defective lights, steering and brakes.

The inspectors idled only about 4% of the trucks of other rental firms.

U-Haul said that some vehicles were sidelined for reasons unrelated to their condition, such as a driver lacking a proper license, and that its Canadian operation is safe. The company said it is improving its performance in Canada by adding new trucks, retraining employees and dropping errant dealers.

Ontario Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield said in an interview that U-Haul has a long way to go.

"The bottom line is, people are renting U-Hauls and they're not safe," she said.

I got a few e-mails this weekend from religious nutters for going by reason and science in my column rather than bible stories. Time and time again, I was accused of lacking "morals." What morals I do have, as a self-proclaimed godless harlot, tell me that you don't put profits ahead of people's lives.

Forget the argument that U-Haul is the only affordable way for some people to move, as if that makes their maintenance failings okay. People who use U-Haul are making arrangements to pay a certain price -- they aren't being told that that price comes with serious hidden safety risks.

Posted by aalkon at June 25, 2007 7:51 AM

Comments

Oh, there's nothing like the joy of driving a big U-Haul truck down State Route 31 towards U.S. 33 in the middle of the night only to have the headlights go out on you because of a bad alternator . . . .

Posted by: jen at June 25, 2007 9:11 AM

I've used U-Haul a few times, and have always been rented a newish vehicle (

I find it odd that a big company in a competitive industry would expose itself to liability so blatantly. Seems like they're asking for punitive damages if someone gets hurt due to improper maintenance. Stupid.

Posted by: justin case at June 25, 2007 9:32 AM

I thought the religious nuts were all about valuing human life above all other things. Isn't that the reason they give for being against abortion and keeping brain-dead people on life-support? (although there is that death-penalty thing they seem to like so much...).

I guess what they really want is just to tell everyone else what to do and not have to give any kind of rational reason for their decisions.

Posted by: Chrissy at June 25, 2007 11:15 AM

Funny that when I moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago in a U-Haul it was my car, not the U-Haul that had a problem! The U-haul didn't even have a tape player though. That suuuuucked.

Posted by: Shinobi at June 25, 2007 11:24 AM

> Forget the argument that U-Haul is the only affordable way for some people to move

Several years ago, when I moved to the Southeast from the Midwest, a full-service mover was actually cheaper than U-Haul and its do-it-yourself competitors.

Posted by: Doobie at June 25, 2007 5:41 PM

Two things struck me as I read both stories that have run so far in this series:

1) I can hear the sounds of various state AGs rubbing their hands in glee right this second. Along with several plantiff attorney types. And, though I rarely say this, go, power-hungry lawyer types, go. Smite the weasels, smite.

2) WEAR YOUR GODDAMN SEATBELTS, PEOPLE. U-Haul is negligent and craven...but when I come to the part in the description of the fatal or near-fatal accident that mentions "she was thrown from the car" or "who was not wearing a seat belt," I just can't feel as much sympathy for the victim (assuming it's an adult). Don't get me wrong - I feel no MORE sympathy or "understanding" for U-Haul. None whatsoever. But driving a big truck/towing a trailer has inherent risks even if all of the equipment is in tiptop working order, and if you compound that by not wearing a seat belt, you're a damned fool. (No, I'm not saying it should be illegal to not wear a seat belt. I'm saying it's stupid. Being a libertarian, or a quasi-libertarian, means you don't try to outlaw things just because they're stupid.) Does this mitigate U-Haul's culpability? God no. But it's typically easier to describe everything that a company did wrong if you're not suffering from brain damage.

Posted by: marion at June 25, 2007 9:01 PM

Great point, Marion. I'm always amazed when I see people smoking or driving without seatbelts. I think libertarianism might be more popular if people weren't so lazy about personal responsibility.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 25, 2007 11:20 PM

Glad I didn't come across as excusing U-Haul - because trust me, I don't. But it struck me as I read those stories that, except for the guy who got run over by the van, all of the really awful stories - people dead, quadraplegic, etc. - seemed to involve the ones who were thrown out of the van or otherwise didn't seem to be wearing seat belts. (Though I'm still trying to figure out what was up with the young woman who was thrown out but supposedly was wearing a seat belt. Maybe the seat belts were busted too? Wouldn't put it past U-Crawl.)

Posted by: marion at June 25, 2007 11:38 PM

Wearing seat belts is mandatory in the UK. When the law came in, it seemed an affront to liberty. "What if the car is on fire?" everyone asked. But statistically, these objections were unfounded.

Making it law means that everyone now belts up by habit. Without the law, that would simply not have happened. I don't know how many people have been prosecuted under the law. The actual effect of the law has been educative - which is, I think, a Good Thing.

Posted by: Norman at June 26, 2007 2:59 AM

Comment spam, on the other hand, should be punishable by hideous blinding torments set to Muzak.

Just read the latest entry in the U-Haul series, and man, how stoopid is U-Haul? "Losing" evidence when trials are underway? Look, if you're going to get a judge mad at you, it had better be for the RIGHT REASON. Though there was something peculiarly satisfying reading through stories where U-Haul "lost" evidence and a judge in response basically said, "Okay, you don't get to put on a defense, then - let's ask the nice plaintiffs what they want!" Now THIS is newspaper journalism at its best.

Posted by: marion at June 26, 2007 9:10 PM

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