Several years ago in a shop where we kept as many cars as possible inside the building at night, I was driving a car off the frame machine and was going to take it to the mechanic’s shop for an alignment and A/C charge. As I came down the inclined frame bench, I hit the brakes. But when I leaned forward a bit, the seat belt didn’t grab. I tried the brakes a couple more times in the half-block trip to the mechanic, and the seat belt never did restrain me.
The unit turned out to be damaged, and the insurance company paid for the replacement. Since then, I’ve tried to always remember to check safety-related items on every vehicle.
More all the time, safety is on the minds of collision repair consumers. And thanks to millions of attorneys, liability is also on their minds. Even if you’re performing every procedure to the very best of your abilities, you may be jeopardizing the safety of your customers by forgetting to check safety features.
Without a doubt, shops should inspect certain safety equipment on every vehicle with frame damage. And if the severity of that damage requires time on the frame machine, there’s a chance that some overlooked items may have sustained damage as a result of the accident.
Safety Check List
- Safety belts
When checking safety belts, pull them all the way out to inspect the belt for frays or tears that may have occurred when the impact stopped the car and the driver lunged forward. Check both lap and shoulder belts. Buckle them and unbuckle them a few times, and make sure the connection is secure when the belt is buckled. Drive the vehicle on a back road at about 30 mph and stop quickly. When you stop quickly like this, the safety belt should lock in position and keep you from leaning forward. Do this several times to make sure the belt will restrain the driver every time.
Estimators should make a habit of asking customers how many passengers were in the vehicle at the time of the accident. Knowing who was in the vehicle and where they sat will give you a better idea of which belts may have been affected by the accident. If there’s a child restraint seat in the car, find out if a child was in that seat at the time of the accident. If so, carefully inspect the seat for any cracks or other signs of stress or damage. If the seat is damaged in any way, document the damage and add the cost of a replacement seat to the bill. Always cut up damaged child restraint seats to assure they’re never used again under any circumstances.
Even if the airbags haven’t discharged, you still should check the entire system. I’ve seen several wrecked vehicles that were hit directly on one headlight and the airbag sensor had the daylights knocked out of it, but the airbag didn’t deploy. Some systems are designed so two sensors must receive an impact to deploy the airbags. If the damage is high and only on one side of the front end, the other sensor won’t feel enough of an impact to deploy the airbag. It’s actually a good feature because it prevents airbag deployment in a minor accident, when the driver wouldn’t have hit the steering wheel anyway.
- Anti-lock brakes
Always check anti-lock brake systems, especially if there’s frame damage. Check electrical connections and sensors, inspect brake lines for kinks and check hoses for cuts. Obviously, if any
of the wheels received a direct impact, thoroughly inspect the system for damage.
- Steering and suspension components
Inspect steering and suspension components for damage. Again, if the vehicle is damaged badly enough to merit a visit to the frame machine, steering or suspension components could be damaged, even if none of the wheels took a direct hit. When a 3,500-pound (or more) vehicle clobbers into another vehicle from an angle, the pressure placed on the suspension and steering sometimes bends or misaligns components. Even after a relatively minor accident, a qualified alignment technician should inspect and align every vehicle.
- Hood latch
If the severity of damage to a radiator support warrants replacement of any portion of the support, I always demand a hood latch. If the hood has a bolt-on striker, that also gets replaced. I’ve never had to put up a fight to get a hood latch, even if the old one seems to work fine. I’ve only had to explain my reasons for replacing these parts a few times and, once explained, my reasons weren’t questioned. Nobody wants to accept liability for the failure of a part that could have been replaced for under 50 bucks. With a brand-new, properly installed hood latch, the liability falls either on the person who doesn’t properly shut the hood or on the manufacturer of the part – not your shop.
- Headlights and turn signals
How often have you been driving at night, and an oncoming vehicle has one headlight pointed straight at your face? I’ve driven the same truck for years, and the headlights are still properly aligned. And I’ve never adjusted them. I think it’s safe to assume that a large percentage of the vehicles with improperly aimed headlights have been damaged and/or had headlights replaced – but the lights weren’t properly aimed.
Improperly aimed headlights are hazardous to everyone on the road. Of course, every tech gets in a hurry from time to time and forgets, but it’s imperative to properly aim headlights. You should also check all the other lights on the car and the turn signals – even though some drivers never use them (which is good for business).
It’s also a good idea to check the horn. Although the horn is often used to say hello or hurry up, it’s also a safety feature. The horn is the only way to warn other drivers – like the guy who changes lanes without looking – of potential danger. I know a painter who makes it a point to check all the horns in the shop free of charge. His favorite time to check the horn is usually when you’re under the car and don’t know he’s there.
How much do you charge?
How does a shop owner determine the rate for safety checks such as these? After all, some of these items aren’t listed in the estimating guides, and some don’t take long to do. Checking the horn, for instance, doesn’t reduce the shop’s production, but it does save the customer a return trip to the shop. And you never know when your customer might need a working horn to prevent another accident.
On the other hand, a thorough inspection and diagnosis of all safety equipment will be time-consuming and require a variety of technical skills. And it’s not a good idea to have an underpaid tech rushing through a safety equipment inspection on Friday afternoon because you want to deliver the car by 5 o’clock.
Before you place a price on this service, give serious consideration to the actual value of the service provided and not the amount of time that’ll be spent performing the procedures. How much is it worth to consumers to know that all safety-related equipment in their vehicles has just been thoroughly checked by a trained technician?
Also, consider the liability incurred when you list these procedures on an estimate. How much liability falls on your shoulders if a safety belt fails after your shop was paid to inspect the belts? I suppose that’ll be left up to a judge and jury, but I’d definitely want to pay techs well enough for safety check items to know they’ll take the time to do a thorough job.
Personally, I’ve never been paid for it. If the customer doesn’t point out that the safety belts are damaged, it’s the furthest thing from the adjuster’s, as well as the shop appraiser’s, mind. If airbags are discharged, the system gets checked. If there’s damage to suspension or brakes, they’ll be inspected. But very few shops inspect these items unless there’s damage or suspected damage. Not many people in this industry consider us to be like doctors at the emergency room – with unconscious patients unable to tell us where it hurts. Yet if we don’t look everywhere for possible damage, we may overlook something important.
If I owned a shop and had to come up with a price to charge for safety inspections, I wouldn’t base my price on the amount of time it takes to perform the inspection. Instead, I’d base my price on the liability I incur when my tech inspects a safety-related item. So I’d probably charge $150-$200. Maybe more. When insurance companies refused and called it ridiculous, they could be the one to explain to the customer that his safety isn’t worth $200. Of course, if I owned a shop, the customer would be standing right there while I went over my estimate with the adjuster. Adjusters wouldn’t to come to my shop any time they wanted to look at any car they wanted. They’d have to make an appointment at a time when the customer also could be there. Difficult adjusters tend to change their tune with the owner of the car standing right there, especially if the customer knows his rights. You don’t get those remarks like, “It’s just a five-year-old Civic …” But then, that’s another article.
Unfortunately, I think most shop owners, like techs, are in a hurry to get the job done. On top of that, they also have all the other worries of running a business so safety checks are often completely forgotten. If you ask them, most shop owners will agree that it should be done and that there’s huge liability involved when you release a car to a customer with defective safety equipment. But a few days after you asked them and they agreed, it’ll be right back to business as usual: Hurry up and get the cars done.
If shop owners would stop giving away so much free work, more techs would have more time to complete better repairs without taking a cut in pay. But if a safety inspection is just one more freebie that slows down a commission-paid tech, you can expect it to be overlooked regularly.
Whether you charge the insurance company, the customer or no one at all, safety-related items are the most important features of any vehicle. Even if you show no profit on the inspection of safety-related items or stand to lose a few bucks, isn’t it worth it to know your customer’s vehicle will be as safe to ride in as it was before the accident?
Forget liability and all the legal mumbo jumbo. Is a human life worth the time it takes to check and inspect just the seat belts, airbags, brakes and horn? Every defective piece of safety-related equipment discovered in a thorough inspection and diagnosis represents at least one life saved somewhere down the line. As much as I complain about free work, I say we check safety equipment whether we get paid for it or not.
Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.