Free car for not at-fault driver
Someone has smashed into your car, which puts it off the road for some time. This common scenario has given car hire companies the chance to come up with a service where they provide you, the driver whose car is in the garage for repairs, with a like-for-like replacement while your damaged vehicle is off the road.
Why don't I know about this?
Like ride-sharing Uber, this is a fairly recently service introduced by some car rental companies which know how reliant we are on our wheels. These companies, whose brands include itwasntmyfault, Not At Fault, Compass Claims and Acorn Rentals, don't advertise but can be readily found online by searching for not-at-fault car rental services.
Mostly the availability of this service spreads through word of mouth. According to Compass Claims, only 6% of the population know it exists, so it's a growing market. Some firms providing free car hire to not-at-fault drivers also provide claims-handling and repair services.
What conditions apply?
The first is that you are not the at-fault driver. The at-fault driver has to admit fault and provide you with his or her contact details; you should also have the at-fault driver's number plate.
Another important condition for the car replacement service to be free for you is that the at-fault driver has accident insurance so that the rental company can claim the cost of providing you the replacement vehicle from the at-fault driver's insurance company.
The bottom line is that if there is no insurer from which the rental company can recover the car rental cost, it won't provide you with a free vehicle.
In effect, the rental car is provided to you on credit. It's called credit hire. At the end of the rental, the care hire company recovers the rental charge from the at-fault driver's insurance company.
This is where it can get tricky. If for some reason the car rental company can't locate the at-fault driver or his or her insurer (say, because you have been given false driver information, or the car is stolen), or the at-fault driver isn't insured you may be up for the car rental fee unless you have already ticked that option on your regular insurance policy as an extra service. Usually that involves a small additional charge on top of your insurance premium. The car hire company isn't providing a charity service. It will want to be paid by someone. And that may be you.
Furthermore, if your car is damaged in a car park or while parked in the street and the driver doesn't leave his or her contact details, the service won't provide you with a free replacement car.
It is therefore important, when you are offered the like-for-like rental car, to make sure the hire company has all the information it needs, that it has determined the at-fault driver has insurance and that his or her insurer will pay for the car hire.
Do I get a like-for-like car?
All the not-at-fault car replacement companies claim they will do their best to provide a Mercedes if your Merc has been damaged, or a station wagon if that is what is in the garage. But it isn't guaranteed.
What if I'm the at-fault driver?
The free car hire offer does not apply. You will have to pay for the hire, unless your comprehensive policy entitles you to a replacement from your own insurer. In fact, it may be your insurance company that will be paying for the other driver's car hire while that car is off the road.
Pros: This looks like a good service to ask about as your car is towed to the garage for repairs. Accessing it might save you hundreds of dollars in car rental charges.
Cons: It all hinges on the at-fault driver having accident insurance so that the rental company can claim back the costs. Otherwise, you might end up footing the bill.
My call: Before you accept a "no cost" replacement car, clarify that you meet all the conditions required to ensure that you won't be handed the bill if the car replacement company can't recover the cost from an insurer. If your wheels are critical to you, it is a good idea to tick the car replacement option on your comprehensive car insurance policy to ensure that you have a replacement vehicle no matter who is at fault in an accident. It's usually a small charge, and worth it.
Anne Lampe has written for The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, winning a Walkley award in 1991. Car replacement