Thursday, December 14, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: A step forward on disclosing rental car toll costs

The legal scam allowing rental car companies to rip off consumers for toll road fees marked a low even for a Florida state government obsessed with creating a business-friendly climate. But Attorney General Pam Bondi helped right the scale with an out-of-court settlement that at least requires disclosure of the fee and, in certain cases, provides for refunds. This is the least the Sunshine State can do for residents and tourists alike.

For years, rental car companies have charged fees to their customers who rent cars and drive on toll roads but who can't or don't pay tolls because the booths accept only electronic payments, such as through a transponder. The complaints have escalated as the state has increased the use of electronic-only tolling, angering tourists and residents who see it as the predatory practice it is. With more than 600 miles of toll roads — much of them clustered in South Florida and in the Orlando theme park area — this scheme has given Florida a black eye for no good public purpose, and it is good that the state's chief legal officer stepped in.

Bondi said Avis, which also owns the Budget and Payless rental car brands, had agreed to "clearly and conspicuously" disclose that it charges $3.95 per day to customers who rent their cars and who encounter booths that allow only electronic tolling. The attorney general's office said the three companies also must disclose on their websites and online reservation portals and at their service counters the details of the fee and how customers can avoid it. The settlement requires the three companies to refund payments to customers who are charged for tolls without sufficient disclosures and who have sought but not already been reimbursed for a charge.

The announcement made no mention of other car companies that charge similar or higher fees — most notably Dollar Thrifty, which imposes a $15 administrative fee on consumers every time they don't pay a cashless toll, up to $90 per day, according to attorneys for consumers who have filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Miami. Bondi needs to monitor this deal and continue working to bring a level of fair play across the entire industry.

The Legislature needs to rein in these fees, and Gov. Rick Scott, who regularly promotes Florida as a family-friendly destination, should set an example by calling for the interests of tourism and fair play to rise above corporate profits.

Until then, Bondi's office is a natural advocate for consumers. She is using the influence of her office appropriately to at least warn of the predatory practice and to give consumers an outlet for clawing back payments from the rental car companies. This is, in most cases, a bogus charge masquerading as a convenience. But travelers driving a hired vehicle who are unfamiliar with the roads and forced to use automated toll lanes have no real choices. Bondi has made this a fairer playing field by requiring disclosure. But the underlying practice still exists.

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