Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Idea of the day: One clear age requirement for renting a car

September 21, 2011 - 07:50 AM
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Let the young rent. (Photo: flickr/thomaspix)

The minimum age to rent a car without paying any extra fees and extra hassle is 25 years of age. 21-to-24-year-old drivers can generally rent cars by paying an additional underage fee, and two states allow drivers above the age of 18 to rent a car by paying even more fees.

But the "general rule of thumb" — don't even try to rent a car if you're under 25. People joke about how you're able to vote at 18, drink alcohol at 21, and rent a car at 25. That's your gift for aging to that level, and most people accept these age requirements without any hesitation, doubt, or anger.

Yet should they? The car-sharing service Zipcar also has a minimum age, and it's far less than 25. Zipsters can begin driving Zipcars at 21 years of age and even younger if their college campus contracts with Zipcar — which more and more seem to be doing.  Zipcar is actually targeting the college demographic.

Now, I know there are very real differences between a full car rental and taking out a Zipcar ... but is the difference really that significant? Both types of service involve a driver taking out a vehicle and driving it. Shouldn't these age requirements harmonize more than they are now?

I would suggest lowering the age to rent a car. Why should a car rental company only grant its vehicles (penalty-free) to divers at age 25 when Zipcar grants similar vehicles starting at age 21 or even less? That's a four-year difference we're talking about here, minimum. The origin of the difference involves, I suspect, differing insurance rates based on the rate of the drivers. Drivers in the 18-to-24 demographic are seen as potentially riskier drivers, hence rental companies are hesitant to rent out their vehicles for the same rates as to older drivers. It's the same reason a driver's insurance premiums tend to change when they turn 25. You see that difference clearly in Hertz — to rent a car through its default arsenal, you have to be at least 25 unless you want to pay extra fees; to join its Hertz Demand car-sharing service, you have to be over 18 years old. In Daimler's car-sharing service, Car2Go allows its Austin, Texas members to join at as young as 18 years, with special fees only potentially applied in the 18-21-year range, not in the 21-to-24 range.

But our society increasingly emphasizes this short-term rentership lifestyle, from Netflix to Zipcar to Capital Bikeshare, and if car rental companies want to stay relevant, then they should consider lowering their age requirements (said with the caveat that of course, in the end, every company should have the freedom to do as it wishes). Car-sharing companies aren't apparently suffering too badly for allowing 21- and 22-year-old drivers.

If rental car companies don't do so, then the onset of car-sharing companies like Zipcar could begin to dig into their territory. As I wrote about recently, Zipcar has partnered with Ford in a two-year initiative that is attempting to make Zipcar the go-to alternative for the transient college population all around the country. The car-sharing company will focus on around 250 campuses, increasing its presence and featuring 650 new Ford vehicles branded with the Zipcar logo.

Zipcar, rather than running from the 18-to-24-year-old demographic with added underage fees, is running toward it with discounted memberships and slick car-sharing brochures. Take note.

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