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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

Fixing the car repair business

Since the advent of computer-controlled engines and other systems on automobiles, the shade-tree mechanic has pretty much gone the way of the horse and buggy. Fixing a car is now the province not of a guy with a set of socket wrenches, but of someone with a full complement of expensive electronic diagnostic devices.

And as the computer controls have become more sophisticated, the repair shop more and more motorists get steered to in case of trouble is the auto dealer, for whom service is a profitable sideline. But what happens in the event of a breakdown on vacation or on the weekend, when most dealers are closed?

A survey by the Automotive Service Association, which represents 15,000 independent shops, found that about 10 percent of repairs could not be carried out because the mechanic didn't have access to the computer codes necessary to figure out what's wrong. The auto industry doesn't want to give up those codes, arguing that they're proprietary information and providing them would help competitors.

As usual, the consumer is caught in the middle, since dealers are generally open fewer hours than the independents and usually charge $10 to $20 more per hour for service.

This situation seems blatantly anti-competitive and a bipartisan coalition in Congress agrees. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas) have introduced the identical “Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act” in the Senate and House.

The lawmakers contend that consumers should be able to get repairs quickly and are entitled to choose among competing repair facilities. This is legislation that truly would benefit most drivers, especially those with cars made since 1996.

Passage of the Wellstone-Barton bill won't bring back the old shade-tree mechanic, but motorists would have a greater likelihood of getting their cars fixed in a more timely, convenient, and economical fashion.

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