Family rental car mistake: The time I almost killed my kid

Oct 16, 2019

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When you travel with a baby or toddler, you take precautions to make sure your bundle of joy stays safe. Many trips include a rental car, and you probably have already considered what to do about a car seat: whether you bring your own or rent one when you get there along with trying to avoid any unnecessary car seat fees. Once the seat is properly installed, you might be breathing a sigh of relief.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Safe and sound in a properly installed car seat. (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Not so fast. Today I want to share a car rental PSA that is absolutely imperative if you are traveling with a small child. To be honest, even 14 years later, I hate thinking about two of the scariest minutes of my life. But it’s an important story you need to know so you can prevent it from happening to you. I still see rental cars all of the time where this could easily happen.

Related: TPG’s guide to credit cards that offer primary car rental coverage

I took basic safety for granted and it almost killed my kid

My story takes place during my first solo European trip with my toddler-aged son. The overnight flight and connection in Paris to Malaga couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I dutifully strapped my son, then 2, into his car seat in our rental car and off we went blazing down the Mediterranean highway at 70 mph (the speed limit) on a perfect October morning. We were going west, so the best views of the sea were in the left lane. Traffic was light and I was in a holiday mood.

It was a very easy assumption to make on my part, especially after an overnight flight with a 2 year old and a 30-minute wait at the rental counter in Malaga. I assumed that since I was a parent with a young child and used safety locks on the back seats, everyone did. I didn’t learn of my lapse in judgment until about 20 minutes into the drive … when his door flew completely open. Somehow, he had managed to open the door.

As I was driving 70 miles an hour on the freeway in the left lane.

Looking back 14 years later, it’s funny what I remember:

  • I remember thinking, besides “$@#$@%$%@#$%!”, “Oh, that’s what they mean by ‘drag,'” as the car lurched to the left, almost hitting the guardrail and careening over the 50-foot drop to the eastbound lanes below.
  • When you have to do an emergency stop at 70 mph from the left lane of a freeway, what’s behind you is scarier than what’s in front of you.
  • Seat belts are strong. Really strong.
  • My son laughed through the whole thing as if it were a ride at Sesame Place.

But the main thing that occurred to me every single time I rented a car from then until my youngest could be trusted with a door was what I want you to remember now: Check the child-proof door settings on your rental cars! 

If you aren’t sure how to change your child locks, here is a handy primer. Don’t leave the car rental lot until you are sure this is done. You can also check the car’s manual, which most car rental agencies leave in the glove compartment.

This is a good idea if you are using Uber or Lyft as well, especially if your kid is solo in the back seat. Taking five seconds to do a child car lock safety check could save a life.

More car travel resources:

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