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                   Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 9:50PM CST

Don't rent a car for storm chasing

By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Chasing
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I'm probably going to take some heat for this post. Please don't take it personally, as I know I have many good friends who are going to disagree with me. I hear a lot about rental cars used for chasing, then turned in with 15,000 miles and hail damage claimed on the CDW/LDW insurance (the 'extra' insurance options that are supposed to cover any conceivable thing that could happen to the car). I'm also hearing that rental companies are starting to wise up to all of this - in at least one case that I know of, demanding that the renter pay for the full damage to the car (high four figures) despite having the extra insurance.

Hail damage during a chase is no "accident"

A rental agency has every right to demand reimbursement for storm chasing-related hail damage. A car damaged by hail by a chaser is not completely accidental. In reality, it is a deliberate, premeditated act of placing the vehicle in an extremely high-risk situation that the chaser is fully aware of. Storm chasing by definition is purposefully driving in and around severe thunderstorms. And as such, chase-related hail damage can never be considered an unforeseen accident. We all know that the chances of encountering large hail in the vicinity of supercells is high. That's a well-known fact by even the most novice chasers. Every one of us has suffered a hail strike or two, at the very least, nearly every season. We know it's going to happen, and we know that there is a real risk of severe/copious damage when we get close to a meso or core punch a supercell.

There is absolutely no reason that a rental agency should be forced to pay for this type of damage to their own property. Trying to make a CDW/LDW insurance claim for this, or trying to pass it off as an accident, actually crosses the criminal line. It's no different than taking a baseball bat to the car and then making a claim. I don't mean this to single out anyone - so please don't take it personally. (I've also heard of chasers being reported/'ratted on' to rental companies for this, and for the record, it was not by me.) I'm just trying to impress now that this is serious business - this type of scheme is going to land a chaser in jail one day.

And I'm not trying to be pro-insurance company here. I have to pay my share for my own insurance premiums like everyone else, I don't get a break. But I know that insurance is based on the level of risk. That is, unforseen events that have a low chance of happening to any given person are covered. You can't intentionally drive your car off a cliff or set your house on fire and expect it to be covered (and then not go to jail after the investigators find out). Hail damage while chasing tornadoes is no different.

What about your personal vehicle? The difference with your own car is that it's your vehicle. It doesn't belong to someone else. It is your decision to have cosmetic damage fixed or not - unlike a rental company, who does have to worry about the appearance of their cars for future clients. My last two vehicles ended up with copious hail damage by the time I was done with them. I never filed a claim for it and never worried about having them repaired. In fact, in the case of my Ford Freestyle, I had hail dents on it 5 months after driving it off the lot brand-new in 2005. I took quite a hit on the final trade-in value of the car because of that and other hail dents I accumulated over the years. In the end, it was me who ultimately bore responsibility for the consequences of my conscious, deliberate choice to place my vehicle in and around supercells.

My point is, (at least minor) hail damage is an inevitability for even conservative chasing. It is a cost of seeing tornadoes that we have to accept, not unfairly pass off on others. There is no getting around the fact that we intentionally drive our cars into supercells. Not only into supercells, but we hang out frequently where large hail is known to be inside them - in and near the meso where the tornadoes are. No one wants to get their car clobbered by hail, true, but by driving into cores and under mesos, it's always a very high risk - no, an eventually certain risk. When the dents happen, there is no one to blame but ourselves! We all have to own up to that.

Renting a car for chasing is ultimately a liability to you

So purposefully damaging a rental car in this way, and then trying to not have to pay for it isn't necessarily a moral issue, it isn't a Christian/non-Christian issue, it's ultimately not even a matter of ethics that I'm suggesting here. It's a matter of if you do or don't want a criminal record and/or a ten thousand dollar plus demand from a rental agency. Many have gotten away with it in the past, but rental companies are increasingly wising up! You might be able to put enough of a spin on it to convince yourself and other chasers that it's OK, but you really need to worry about whether you'll be able to convince a judge, an insurance investigator and/or a prosecuting attorney. Don't worry about what I think - worry about them!

What if you have to rent a car?

Now I completely empathize with my overseas colleagues who fly into the US to chase in the spring - and even some chasers on the east and west coasts who can't realistically make that 2,000 mile drive. I understand that they really don't have much of any other options for transportation. But even so, the damage risk and responsibilities with a rental car don't go away. I would offer these suggestions, in that case, for the chaser to either:

  1. Contract with an insurance company who can confirm in writing that hail damage while chasing is covered (that is, all parties know what the vehicle will be used for). I don't know if this is even possible, and even if it is, that type of coverage would likely be very expensive. But again, rightfully so - higher risk groups always pay higher insurance premiums!
     
  2. be financially prepared to fully reimburse a rental agency for all hail damage
     
  3. purchase a used vehicle within the US for dedicated chasing purposes, or
     
  4. be extremely conservative in your chasing strategy (no core punching or observing tornadoes from close range).
(Even option #4 won't make you completely immune from hail)

In the end, a decision to rent a car for storm chasing is a huge gamble with one's finances. My intent here isn't to get up onto a high horse, dredge up past incidents, bash individual chasers or be judgemental. I just hope I can be convincing enough to prevent a future disaster - I don't want to see fellow chasers financially ruined or in jail for insurance fraud. If chasers keep turning in damaged rental cars and trying to walk away, mark my words - it will happen. Don't let it be you!

The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

Dan thanks for putting this out there in writing! I have always chased under the umbrella "If it's not something I am prepared to loose/dammage, don't take it" One thing I see a tad differently is the personal vehicles. I see time and time again where chasers get cored then get it fixed. I am on a Mutual policy where all the policy members are "Owners" and that determines the rate... keep them out of my policy! If I loose a windshield it's my problem, I will fix it, simple as that. For rental companies... I'm sorry if I am paying at times $25-30 a day for insurance then heck yes it better cover anything that happens, if it was $2/day like a typical car insurance policy I would agree.
- Posted by Scott
I agree that claiming this damage on one's own car is the same thing. With the rental policies, unfortunately it's going to be up to them how they interpret whether hail damage is covered - instead of us. All insurance policies exclude deliberate or willfully negligent acts, and I think they've got a pretty good case to nullify it with chase-related hail damage. At the least, if they take it to court the chaser is going to have a hard time proving it was really accidental.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
This is the exact reason I bought a car for $1500 to chase with. I've had it for over a year and 30,000 miles later (235k on the odo) it still runs great but is loaded with huge hail dents, and I lost no money and don't have to deal with any rental or insurance companies. As long as the car makes it through the 2010 season, it has more than paid for itself.
- Posted by Scott from Wisconsin
Not quite, Dan. Purposefully driving into hail is purposefully driving into hail. Trying to chase while also trying to avoid hail is just that. It's a higher risk situation, for certain. But no certainty. And not the same as purposefully driving into hail.
- Posted by Todd
It helps me to know about this. You have been shown importance of this topic. They should also be able to explain their clients’ policies in thorough detail and mention about the potential for coverage gaps.It will be inspired me always. This is very nice post! I will bookmark this blog.
- Posted by Insurance Expert from Bay Point
I was thinking of going to the midwest for a meeting and doing some storm chasing afterward and was worrying about hail damage so did a search and came up with your blog. Glad I did because I didn't realize Insurance companies were getting wise to storm chasers and I didn't know it was that common to get your car pounded with damaging hail like that. Here on the east coast we rarely get hail and if we do it's not big enough to damage. Anyway I do have an old car and will drive it to the midwest to do the storm chasing. Thanks for the blog. Maybe do an article on how not to get trapped by a large tornado. How common is that anyway?
- Posted by Timothy from Phila
Thanks Timothy! Fortunately it is very hard to get yourself in the path of a tornado even if you're trying to do it. As long as you have a source of radar and better yet someone with some experience with you, there should be little to worry about. Just give the dangerous parts of the storms a wide berth (easy to do with radar and a car) and you'll be fine.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL

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