I didn't know that, to rent a car in Britain, you must present all the usual documents, plus either your passport, if you are a foreigner, or a utility bill, if you are a local. No exceptions are tolerated.
Oh, and just so's you know, this rental company takes the maximum security deposit from your credit card before you rent the car. Most companies will block a notional amount off your credit limit, but not charge you the deposit unless you bring back a damaged car or fail to return altogether.
The deposit came to a total of $770. At this writing, 10 days after the car was returned in good order, the money hasn't been credited back to my card. This piratical practice wasn't mentioned to me in advance; I'm angry enough to bite my way through steel.
I had presented my driver's license, which carries a photo of me, and a credit card good in extremis for the replacement cost of the piece of junk they intended to rent to me. The station manager explained the need for further identification and then, determined not to let me have the car under any circumstances, laid down his trump card: "Look, it's not me, it's the insurance."
He thus cast into play the ultimate force in business matters: "the insurance."
Whatever "the insurance" wants, "the insurance" gets. Like many major cities, London has its crime lords and kingpins, but even they must bow to the whims of "the insurance."
The reference is not that flattering. Ham-fisted authority is hardly the image any industry craves. But that's what insurance stands for in the United Kingdom, apparently. In reality, "the insurance" could not have cared less whether I gave them an electric bill or a $1,000 bill, although they'd doubtless have preferred the latter. The station manager invoked "the insurance" because he was losing the argument and needed to end it.
Two days later, I asked an electrician to do something considered shady--who knew you couldn't have a wall plug lower than three feet off the floor? (It's in case a handicapped person drops by and wants to plug something in.) "It's not allowed," the fellow said. "It's the 'health and safety'."
"Health and safety" is another phrase, like "the insurance," intended to strike fear into the heart and put the kibosh on creativity, in the service of risk mitigation.
"Screw the health and safety," I said, being by nature a risk taker. It didn't work. The cowboy electrician was too afraid.
"You don't know what you're dealing with," he said. "If they find out you got an electrical socket near the floor, you'll be for the high jump."
I'm more of a pole vaulter, really. My apartment is what Americans call a fourth-floor walk-up. If you survive the stairs, you wouldn't care where the plugs happened to be. I couldn't find a single electrician willing to let me take the risk.
We live in a time when every little detail is attended to in the name of our safety, yet the global economic system has melted down. Britons no longer fear the Nazis or the Reds; now it's "the insurance" and the "health and safety" that cause us sleepless nights.
Sad, ain't it?
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
May 1, 2009
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