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So Your Car Isn't Totaled—But Is It Safe?

Look at the part about windshield replacements!!
Written by our Chief Counsel, E. L. Eversman, a premier legal authority in the automotive arena, these articles address the most important legal issues affecting the automotive industry today.

So Your Car Isn't Totaled—But Is It Safe?
By E. L. Eversman, Esq.
June 04, 2003

Car accidents are frustrating and time-consuming, to say nothing of the emotional effect that goes along with having your property damaged. Yet, consumers often find themselves in a position of uncertainty when it comes to their options regarding repair issues. Here are some important points to keep in mind:

You are not required to have the car repaired.

You have a right to have the repair and the process explained to you.

Just because the vehicle was repaired and returned to the road, does not mean the repair is adequate or safe.
It will come as a shock to many people to discover that there is no U.S. federal agency charged with overseeing vehicle repair methods. There are no U.S. federal laws governing or approving repair methods. There are no U.S. federal laws setting any type of standard for the vehicle repairs, and there is, also, very little state-wide regulation for the industry. In many states, there are no education, technical, or training requirements to be a collision repairer, and just about anyone can legitimately hold him/herself out as a qualified repairer.

What about reports on crash-testing?

All of those reports and statistics that come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about crash-testing and safety of vehicles deal exclusively with new vehicles. NHTSA oversees the "new car assessment program" (NCAP) to encourage manufacturers to design safer vehicles. Likewise, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is privately funded by insurance companies (not the federal government), tests new vehicles as well. The single discussion regarding any repair issue available on the IIHS website addresses the use of cosmetic aftermarket parts in a vehicle's repair. Titled "Cosmetic Replacement Parts and Auto Repair Practices" and originally published in January of 1987, this advisory maintains that "cosmetic" aftermarket parts have no influence on vehicle crashworthiness. The Institute also asserts that the information in the advisory is still accurate.

This, of course, raises questions. First, what are the parts the IIHS considers to be "cosmetic"? Second, what does any of this discussion have to do with "auto repair practices"? According to the IIHS, cosmetic parts are certain body parts, including the fenders, quarter panels, hoods, and trunk lids, and " hese parts do not include basic structural items such as frame rails or vehicle subframes." Cosmetic Replacement Parts and Auto Repair Practices (quoted as of June 3, 2003). However, labeling certain parts as cosmetic, quarter panels for example, can be misleading as modern passenger vehicle unibody construction involves inner and outer quarter panels, and the inner panels are part of the structure.

Addressing the second question, what does this advisory have to say about auto repair practices? And the answer is simple. Absolutely nothing. It does not recommend any practice. It does not discourage any practice. The only comment made is that the IIHS expects repairers to fix a car correctly and relies on the competence of the repairer:

One example: windshield replacement
This doesn't mean a repaired car is always exactly the same as when it was new. In some instances, a repair could mean a car no longer meets federal safety requirements for new cars -- but this could happen regardless of the source of the parts. For example, consider a crashed car in which the windshield has to be replaced. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 212 specifies that a new-car windshield must retain at least 75 percent of the adhesion around its periphery in a 30 mph frontal barrier crash test. When a damaged car is fixed, we expect the repairman to prepare the mounting area thoroughly, use a high-quality adhesive, and spread the adhesive correctly, just as it was in the factory, for maximum coating and strength. But the only way to find out for sure whether the replacement windshield retains its periphery -- and thus meets the federal standard --would be to crash the car and that, of course, would not make sense. So we have no choice but to rely on the competence of the repair personnel.

Cosmetic Replacement Parts and Auto Repair Practices (quoted as of June 3, 2003). Although the advisory mentions the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), 49 C.F.R. §571, these standards apply to vehicle components and their conformity to specified safety standards. They do not address collision repair practices, methods, or techniques.

Of greater concern

While the IIHS is relying on the competence of repairers, another disturbing fact in the collision repair industry is that there are no accepted industry-wide standards governing the repair of vehicles. Motorists Assurance Program offers its own partial guidelines for inspecting and repairing certain portions of vehicles, I-CAR® has some "Uniform Procedures for Collision Repair", and the Collision Industry Conference, a forum for repairers, manufacturers, insurers, suppliers, and anyone else interested in collision repair, also addresses some guidelines for repair activities. However, according to James Lynas, founder of Wreck Check®, there simply are no industry or nationwide standards governing collision repair practices or methods, and the lack of standards sometimes puts lives at risk.

For example, Mr. Lynas vehemently opposes a practice known as "clipping" which some repairers utilize and are encouraged to utilize by insurers focused on cost savings. Clipping is a repair technique available when a complete front or rear of a vehicle is damaged and consists of cutting the damaged portion off of the car and welding a corresponding assembly obtained from a salvage yard on to it. As defined by the Collision Industry Conference, "CLIP: A group of related vehicle parts purchased from a salvage yard as an assembly (usually the complete front or complete rear section of a vehicle). Also known as Salvage Clip."

This procedure actually entails cutting through the vehicle's unibody or frame and affects its structural integrity. Auto manufacturers are also opposed to clipping and do not suggest that such a repair is ever appropriate on their vehicles. Yet, because there are no uniform methods and standards in the industry, you just might be riding around in one of these "Frankenstein" vehicles.

So what does this all mean?

It means that simply because your vehicle was repaired does not mean that it meets any safety standards. Even the IIHS admits that, once a vehicle has been damaged and repaired, it may no longer meet the federal safety requirements for new cars - currently, the only federal passenger vehicle safety standards that exist. Additionally, do not be fooled by a claims representative's statement that the vehicle must be safe or the repairer would not have fixed it. Repairers typically have very little power in the relationship with economically influential insurers, and some collision shops will simply make whatever repairs the insurer dictates, irrespective of the potential danger involved in returning a particular vehicle to the road. So, while the IIHS is relying on the competency of repair professionals, who are sometimes pressured (by the same companies funding the IIHS) to perform repairs which may not be safe, you may be driving around in a vehicle which does not meet any crashworthiness standards. In other words, every time you drive a repaired car, you just might be taking your life into your own hands in ways you never expected.

E. L. Eversman

The information provided in this column is for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. You should always consult an attorney licensed to practice in your Country, State, and/or Territory as laws vary from Country to Country, State to State, and Territory to Territory. The author is delighted to share information but cannot be responsible for damage or adversity encountered by reliance upon that information and urges you to consult with local counsel.


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