Q: Hello, Peter. Seems like many rental car companies waive (or don't charge) the fee for spouses and some other categories. But my question is, what is the penalty or harm if you don't pay the fee, your spouse drives, and you get "caught" (say, because you have an accident with the wrong person driving)? If you haven't bought any of the rental agency's insurance, there can't be any denial of coverage. And isn't your own insurance going to cover for an accident in any car, regardless of whether or not the driver is listed with the agency? So what's the harm?
Seems like the worst that could happen is that you might get charged the fee after the fact. Are there horror stories we should know about, like insurance denials from your own insurer? Thanks for any further advice.
–Paul, Ann Arbor, Mich.
A: There are really two issues at play here: who can legally drive a rental car and what the reason is for charging a second driver.
Anyone who plans to drive a rental car must be listed on the rental contract and must be a valid, licensed driver. For a renter to do otherwise voids the contract and could lead to all sorts of legal and criminal ramifications.
First, an unregistered driver is not covered by the rental company's insurance, so if he or she were to have an accident while behind the wheel, the insurance wouldn't pay. Your own auto insurance company could also legally refuse any claim you submitted if the unlisted driver caused the accident and the company learned that he or she was not authorized to drive the vehicle. In addition, the unregistered driver could technically be arrested for stealing the car if he or she were caught by the police without the registered driver in the vehicle. So if you plan to share the driving duties with another person, play it safe, and declare that up front. Make sure you both provide proof that you're licensed.
As for the charge for the second driver, that's got little to do with insurance or liability. Though rental-car companies claim that the odds of an accident increase when there is more than one driver, they don't make you buy extra insurance for an extra driver. So there are some who argue that the rental companies use this statistical footnote as a rationale to make a few extra bucks by tacking on an à la carte fee (the way airlines do).
To avoid the fee, shop around. Policies and fees vary widely by company and location. Some don't charge at all, while others allow spouses or business associates to register as additional drivers for free. Still others waive the charge for members of their frequent-renter programs or organization-wide discounts from groups such as AARP or AAA.