It took only fifty-five minutes to fly the short distance and land at Kahlrsrue-Baden Airpark at nine-thirty in the evening and after quickly clearing immigration and customs we were soon at the car hire desk to pick up our hire car. There was a pleasant young man on duty called Herr Schmidberger and he examined my hire details and then sighed and furrowed his brow and adopted a concerned demeanour, “You have a booking for a vehicle without the winter tyres” he said, “are you sure you want a car without the winter tyres?” I had no idea what he was talking about and must have given him my best blank expression because with that he rolled his eyes so far back into their sockets that if had laser vision he would have fried his brains. The winter tyres were an extra €55 and I was beginning to detect a well rehearsed scam so we took a while to consult with each other on the proposal of paying the extra and this started to test his patience.
I enquired why I might consider going to the unnecessary additional expense and although this was his opportunity to inform me that since May 2006 German motorists have been required by law to use the most appropriate tyres for the weather conditions and that driving on snow covered roads is permitted only if a car is equipped with winter tyres, instead he became even more theatrical and speaking in that clipped precise sort of way that Germans do when speaking English said “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!” Obviously I could see the snow but I still failed to understand why he was so insistent (unless it was a scam). He could have told me that in Germany motorists are obliged to make sure they have correct tyres to suit the winter weather conditions and if a vehicle becomes stuck because the tyres are unsuitable drivers are liable to an on the spot fine, and further more if the vehicle causes an obstruction or aggravation to other traffic, the fine may be doubled. Instead he gave a look that suggested that I was the craziest customer that he had ever dealt with and that driving without winter tyres in snow was madder than wrestling with alligators, swimming in shark infested waters or sky-diving without a parachute.
I asked about the weather forecast and whether he thought it might be snowing in the Black Forest (which at over a thousand metres was an absolute certainty and a really dumb question) and then his eyes started to swivel from side to side like the symbols on a fruit machine and he was clearly losing his patience with me now. He might have explained that winter tyres use a tread rubber compound and block pattern specifically designed to retain flexibility in low temperatures and give good braking and traction performance on snow and ice covered roads but instead he just keep shrieking “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!” By now we were beginning to understand that he thought snow tyres were a very good idea so finally agreed to the additional charge and he immediately calmed down and set about allocating us an appropriate vehicle for the conditions.
After that he went through the booking and paying procedures, explained where we would find the car in the car park and then clearly lacking any sort of confidence in my snow driving abilities and not expecting to see the car again in one piece bade us farewell with the words “please be sure to drive carefully in the snow, it is very dangerous…”
We quickly found the bright blue Nissan Micra hidden under a blanket of snow, cleaned it down, examined the tyres which, at this time not understanding about the special rubber compound looked quite normal to me and fairly soon after setting off I was certain we had been scammed. And we had been of course because at €13.45 a day I calculate that if they are on the car for a third of the year that is an extra €1,600 or €400 a tyre and I cannot believe that they can be that much more expensive than a regular tyre. And of course they are not because I have checked and they can be bought for as little as €40 each.
Car hire firms got away with this because actually winter tyres weren’t compulsory only advisory and left to the driver’s discretion. Happy to take the risk, then take the risk. On 12th April 2010 however they were made compulsory so I was surprised when I returned to the same airport in February 2011 and found the robbing car hire companies still charging extra for what is now a legal requirement.
There is however a good ending to this story:
Upon return home I raised the issue of what I considered to be an excessive winter tyre charge in this journal and the reaction has left me speechless with admiration for Sixt Car Hire.
I have experienced the best customer service experience that I have ever had with a response from the Customer Services Manager in the United Kingdom who provided me with a clear explanation of the law relating to winter tyres and the company policy in respect to additional charges. Later he gave me a substantial refund and also promised to raise the matter with the Company’s Commercial Director.
I have to say that although I paid too much for them I was really glad of the winter tyres as I am sure they made driving a much safer experience in quite tricky driving conditions and hopefully the Commercial Director will be as good as the Customer Services Manager and will give full consideration to my comments.