Friday, 30 June 2006 17:00

Right to Repair Act moves ahead in legislative process

Supporters and detractors continue to vie for position as the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee prepares to hold a markup for the Motor Vehicle Right to Repair Act (HR 2048). This legislation, which is expected to be considered this year, will make it mandatory for automobile manufacturers to disclose to car buyers and independent repair shops the information needed to repair or maintain their vehicles. 

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a major small-business advocacy group, strongly supports the Right to Repair Act on behalf of its members - 4,000 of whom are small and independent repair shops across the country.

In a recent e-mail survey of NFIB members who own independent garages, 78 percent of those responding report that they have been forced to turn customers away or refer them to a manufacturer-owned dealership because they were unable to get the repair information necessary to fix the car. In an effort to keep their customers, 44 percent of the repair shops surveyed report that they have paid a dealer technician to get access to the undisclosed manufacturer information. This under-the-table practice further proves that independent shops are at a disadvantage and manufacturers are not disclosing information equally.

NFIB member Mike Sauce runs Sportscar Performance, a 26-year-old auto repair business in Arlington, Texas. Sauce spends $2,400 a year for software that is supposed to provide him with a full list of manufacturer-specific computer codes necessary to perform repairs. However, Sauce is often forced to turn away customers and refer them to dealerships because the information program does not contain a complete set of computer codes and related electronic engine information.

"There is major credibility lost when we are forced to turn a customer away because we don't have the information necessary to fix their vehicle," says Sauce. "Public perception of my business is tempered by my ability to handle all of their needs, and when I tell someone I can't service their vehicle the first time they come to me, then I doubt that they'll be coming back. I know customers are saying to themselves, 'If they can't fix this, what else can't they do?'"

NFIB believes the Right to Repair Act will restore fairness and equality to the auto repair industry and allow consumers the right to choose where their vehicles are serviced.

Extent of problem

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the agency which would administer HR 2048. At the request of the House committee, the FTC conducted an automated search of the more than four million complaints in the FTC's Consumer Information System (CIS). During the period from 1996 to 2006, the FTC received 6,786 complaints relating to auto parts and repairs, only two of which were relevant. Using a random sample of complaints, comment lines were analyzed and none were found relating to the inability to access repair information. Based on these results, the FTC has stated with a 95% confidence level that there are 100 or fewer complaints in the system.

The response did point out, however, that individual consumers may not necessarily complain to the FTC about auto repair issues. Consumers are more likely to complain to their local attorneys general or the Better Business Bureau. The National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators lists auto repair problems among the top ten most reported complaints.


Support diminishing

The ranking member of the subcommittee assigned to the Right to Repair Act has not only withdrawn her support of the bill, but has written a letter to all of her Democratic colleagues asking that they also withdraw their support.

In a June 9 letter, Illinois Represen-tative Jan Schakowsky, said that the latest amendments to the bill undermine consumer protections by taking away consumers' and independent shops' rights to take their cases to court. Schakowsky also cited a lack of data "to demonstrate a systematic problem" concluding that, "I do not believe we should legislate because of a few anecdotes."

Schakowsky withdrew her cosponsorship of HR2048 on June 8.

According to Congress Daily, three other Democrats have removed themselves as co-sponsors. A spokesman for Democratic representative Diana DeGette of Colorado told the publication that the changes made to the bill were too drastic and she could no longer support the bill. Representative Tammy Baldwin said that the bill is no longer necessary because automakers and bill advocates have made progress on a private agreement. Massachusetts Rep Ed Markey also withdrew support.

In late May, the Right to Repair Act had been approved by the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee on a nearly party-line vote with Democrats largely opposing the measure.

Continued opposition

The Automotive Service Association (ASA) states that the proposed legislation would put at risk the progress that has been made through the Automotive Service Association-Automaker Agreement, which already provides the repair industry, including independent repair shops, with access to service, tool and training information.

H.R. 2048 should be opposed for the following reasons:

• There is a viable industry solution already in place for the service information issue;

• Service information opportunities have expanded under the ASA-Automaker Agreement; and

• Independent repairers want less federal government bureaucracy in their businesses, not more.


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