Business & Tech

The Fine Print | Sean Murphy

Zipcar ended her membership because of a car dent. But was it really about her age?

Virgina Newes loved using Zipcar, but then the car-sharing company abruptly dropped her after a minor accident.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Virgina Newes loved using Zipcar, but then the car-sharing company abruptly dropped her after a minor accident.

Virginia Newes loved the convenience of renting a car from Zipcar.

Twice a month, she used it to go grocery shopping, to the doctor, or to visit friends. It cost less than $40 for a few hours, which was cheaper than owning a car. And it was easy, too: She would make a reservation online and pick it up nearby.

“The whole arrangement was perfect for me,” she told me at her Cambridge home. “I really grew to rely on it.”

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But last month Zipcar terminated her membership.

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Why? Because Newes put a noticeable dent in the side of one of its cars when she swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle in a tightly packed parking garage in October.

Newes is 89 years old. Zipcar knows her age because it requires all members to submit a driver’s license as part of the application process.

“I’m in excellent health and I have a perfect driving record,” Newes said. “Maybe Zipcar doesn’t trust older adults the way it should.”

Zipcar denies that it treated Newes differently because of her age. It told me that it terminates anyone who is at fault in an accident, however minor, if they have been a member for less than a year. Newes began using Zipcar in February.

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But there is no written policy, only a clause in the agreement signed by members pointing out that Zipcar may terminate membership at its discretion.

I don’t think that Zipcar treated Newes fairly.

Newes had two opportunities to make her case that the accident didn’t make her an unsafe driver. First, she had a telephone conversation with a company representative. But a summary of that call written by Zipcar and provided to Newes at her request seems to misrepresent what Newes said she told the representative.

It said that Newes had “no idea what car she hit.”

“That’s incorrect,” she told me. “I gave Zipcar the license plate number and photos of the parked car. It’s rather shocking they would say that.”

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Newes showed me pictures of the undamaged Jeep (Newes scraped against the spare tire mounted on the back of the Jeep), as well as the slightly banged-up Zipcar, which the company said cost $1,230 to repair.

The report also claimed that Newes “had trouble understanding” the Zipcar representative talking to her. Really? I spent a couple of hours talking to her on the phone and in person and she never showed less than 100 percent comprehension.

Newes is a retired professor of musicology. She teaches once a week at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. She writes reviews for the Boston Musical Intelligencer. The 5,000-word summary of events surrounding her accident that she wrote for me is a testament to her mental acuity.

She also proved spry enough to quickly climb into my car when we met so we could cruise around her Harvard Square neighborhood looking for parking. Her mother lived to 100 — “and kept all her marbles,” she told me. She has sisters in good health who are age 95, 88, and 86.

Newes also filed a written report with Zipcar, saying that she had pulled to the right in the parking garage to avoid a pickup truck that had swerved in front of her. She noted in this report that she had scraped against a Jeep that was protruding out of its space.

A couple of days after she reported the accident to Zipcar, Newes was stunned to log on to her account to find she was terminated. She e-mailed Zipcar seeking reinstatement. The reply she got was abrupt and bewildering.

“Thank you for reaching out to Zipcar regarding your account status,” a company representative wrote. “After reviewing this incident, we conducted a thorough review of your account and decided that we can no longer continue to offer you membership.

“Please understand that this is our final decision and cannot be reversed,” the e-mail said.

The Zipcar e-mail went on to cite a clause in its membership contract giving it “sole discretion” in deciding whether to exclude someone after an “incident with a vehicle.”

“Have a good day,” Zipcar said in conclusion.

Newes said there’s nothing amiss in her account. Since joining in February, she’s rented a car 17 previous times, all without incident. She was so satisfied with the service that she donated her own car to a favorite charity. To date, Newes has paid the company nearly $675, including membership and other fees.

Drivers in their 60s have the fewest accidents, but the number of accidents goes up sharply for drivers in their 70s and beyond, topping every age group except those 29 and younger, according to statistics published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

But, by far, teenagers have more accidents than any other age group. This is why Zipcar won’t rent to anyone under age 18, and why it limits rentals to anyone under age 21 to college students.

Weeding out those most likely to be involved in accidents saves the company money.

There must be hundreds of minor mishaps every day with Zipcar vehicles driven by first-year members; do they all result in termination? Does Zipcar treat an 89-year-old the same as a 39-year-old?

I am not convinced.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.