Would Your Work Pass an Auto Safety Expert’s Test? - BodyShop Business

Would Your Work Pass an Auto Safety Expert’s Test?

Many post-repair inspectors are finding that collision repair shops’ work isn’t up to snuff. And that can lead to a liability nightmare, not to mention the end of their businesses.

If you’re one of the many body shop owners or managers who believe post-repair inspectors (PRIs) get some perverse pleasure out of finding and documenting shoddy repairs, you’re right. I know I do! While I won’t attempt to speak for auto inspectors everywhere, I know many personally and can tell you that most drive hard to find the bad stuff that’s been covered up. It’s almost like a game where shops pit their abilities to screw up and hide their screwup against the ability of post-repair inspectors to find those screwups and document them.

If I were filling out a report card on the collision industry based on repairs I’ve examined, I’d give it an “F.” Shops fail miserably at returning cars to their true pre-loss condition. The truth is, most times they don’t even come close to repairing cars in the detailed fashion recommended by auto manufacturers.

In a previous article that appeared in the September 2006 issue of BodyShop Business entitled, “Nine Steps to Protect Your Shop from DV Claims,” I exposed the enormity of the problem and the fact that it occurs from one end of the country to
the other.

After nearly a decade of performing post-repair inspections in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, I’ve seen only two jobs of noteworthy quality among hundreds I’ve viewed. In the south, Florida’s Peter Bartlett, Ph.D., said he’s seen fewer than that. Even though he’s been performing auto inspections since long before I was taking solid food, Bartlett says he can’t remember evaluating any collision-damaged cars that were repaired as well as they could’ve been.

For West Coast DV specialist Rocco Avellini, who’s inspected more
than 2,000 vehicles, the total number of high-quality repairs he’s seen is barely in the double digits. Another left coaster, Washington’s Mike Harbor of CrashTalk fame, has done nearly 700 inspections and reports seeing proper repairs only about one time in every 100. This is a number agreed upon by several other DV specialists I’ve talked to.

Considering these statistics, it’s my opinion (and the opinion shared by most PRIs) that shops’ practice of putting out awful repairs is commonplace regardless of geography.

An Expert’s Opinion
As pathetic as I find repairs on crash-damaged vehicles to be, I wondered what an auto manufacturer’s product design specialist would think if he or she had the opportunity to scrutinize collision repair work from an
engineering perspective. Or how about an auto safety expert? What grade would an expert in this profession give the work of the collision repair industry? How about an auto safety expert with enough knowledge to take even the largest and most powerful auto manufacturers to task?

Enter Byron Bloch, a man whose passion for auto safety was stoked during the hearings that led to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, through which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was formed. The rising death toll on the nation’s roads was a great concern, with President Lyndon Johnson telling the American Trial Lawyers Association that the 48,000 highway deaths (numbers available from 1964) were second only to the Vietnam War as the “gravest problem before the nation.”

Inspired by Ralph Nader, who also came into prominence at this time with his new and controversial book, “Unsafe At Any Speed,” Bloch began voicing his own concerns and hasn’t stopped since. For more than 40 years, he’s been holding car manufacturers accountable for their mistakes
and defects.

Bloch’s resume is impressive. He’s testified in Congressional hearings and in front of NHTSA. He’s appeared as a safety consultant on mainstream television programs such as ABC News’ 20/20, Primetime Live, Nightline, CBS News’ 60 Minutes, Public Eye and NBC News’ Dateline NBC. He’s lectured at colleges across the nation and taught a university seminar series on auto safety. He’s served as research editor for Road Test magazine and has qualified repeatedly since 1971 as an expert in both state and federal courts for automotive defective design cases. He also has his own Web site at www.autosafetyexpert.com.

“I’ve fought for compassion and increased safety in the design of our vehicles…to eliminate defective designs that cause needless injury,” says Bloch. “And if someone is severely injured or killed in a crash, I analyze his or her vehicle to determine what may be unsafe and defective and then work toward bringing some measure of justice for that individual and his or
her family.”

Asked what his biggest regret is, he’ll tell you with a sigh that there have been too many accidents and too many victims’ lives damaged and destroyed, and that change in the auto industry takes too long.

So what does Bloch think of the collision repair industry’s work product and the accountability that shops may one day have to face for their own defects and screwups? I found those things out and more in a Q & A session.

Q: What does it take for an automobile to perform admirably in a crash?

Byron Bloch: “The vehicle body is designed with torsional strength (that is, the twisting of a vehicle body around its longitudinal axis) and also with beam strength (which is, again, the flexing of the body, but this time it’s as if you hold the front axle and flex the rear axle up and down),” Bloch explains. “Typically, these strengths are measured in resistive pounds of force over the angle and twist of the body, whether it’s the torsional twist, deflection or beam strength twist. Additionally, the front and rear of a vehicle are designed with crush zones or crumple zones to cause a predictable fold of the body in a collision.

“Conversely, side impacts need stiffness and strength to minimize intrusion into the passenger compartment. In a rollover situation, roof strength comes into play in a similar manner to reduce the amount of penetration or intrusion downward and laterally into the cabin survival space. To sum it up, a vehicle has to be designed for torsional strength, beam strength, front crush zone, rear crush zone, and stiffness and strength in side impacts and rollovers. This is the foundation shops need
to understand.”

Q: Would it be fair to say then that a crash repair should take all these factors into consideration?

Byron Bloch: Absolutely. A collision shop must, with no exceptions, take into account that when a vehicle begins its life, it’s designed and tested by the auto manufacturer to ensure that it has sufficient torsional strength, beam strength, crush zone performance for the front and rear, and stiffness and strength for side impact and rollover roof crush protection. That cannot be compromised, weakened or deteriorated in the course of repairs that a collision shop performs.”

Author’s note: The federal government through NHTSA sets federal motor vehicle safety standards [FMVSS] which are minimal performance standards manufacturers must adhere to when building cars. Bloch, who isn’t impressed with the FMVSS because he feels they’re too weak, says automakers typically design their vehicles for a margin of performance above the minimum level required by the federal government. Oftentimes, he adds, manufacturers “design vehicles to perform 20 percent above the minimum requirement, but some automakers go as much as twice or 200 hundred percent of the minimal
FMVSS requirement.

“A vehicle that’s being repaired should conform to at least the performance designed into the vehicle at its inception in order to comply with all of the FMVSS,” says Bloch.

Q: But the FMVSS don’t specifically apply to repair shops, but rather to manufacturers only.

Byron Bloch: “You’re correct. However, on the B-pillar or on the back edge of the driver’s door, you’ll see a sticker or plate that officially and legally certifies that a particular vehicle as manufactured fully complies with all applicable motor vehicle safety standards. If a repair shop compromises the vehicle’s ability to similarly conform to the FMVSS, that could put a liability risk upon the collision repair shop for weakening or compromising what would otherwise be a vehicle in full compliance to the FMVSS.”

Author’s note: When shops perform their work haphazardly and compromise a car’s ability to comply with the minimal FMVSS, they don’t often brag about the shortcomings, and notice of such is rarely provided to a car’s occupants. Vehicle owners often find out just how compromised their car’s safety systems are when they need them in a subsequent crash.

Bloch has been involved in hundreds of court cases, including some involving clipping, where he says the owners never had a clue they were driving around in vehicles put together from portions of other wreck-damaged cars.

Q: Can clipped cars perform safely when they’re crashed?

Byron Bloch: “It depends on the quality of the clip itself, what portions of a vehicle are damaged and replaced, and, of course, workmanship. But there’s a bigger question, and that is, ‘How does one verify or validate that such an extensively repaired vehicle really is restored to its full level of crashworthiness (which refers to how well the vehicle can protect the driver and passengers in a collision, whether it’s a front impact, side impact, rear impact or rollover type of accident) protection when, literally, even the parts used to repair it have been traumatized and possibly weakened in previous accidents?’

“It’s an extremely difficult question to answer because it’s literally impossible to now take the vehicle – which may consist of one part of Vehicle A and another part of Vehicle B, joined together to form new Vehicle C – and know it will perform appropriately in front, rear, side and rollover types of accidents that may occur a year or two after repairs have been performed.”

Author’s note: Shops that perform work that alters a vehicle’s design or weakens it in any way may find themselves explaining their actions to a judge and jury – maybe even the family of a quadriplegic. Bloch has seen it too often.

“Shops’ involvement would be weighed under what we call product liability laws. Product liability laws, in essence, state that the manufacturer of a product (in this case, a vehicle) can be held legally liable for the injuries and damages that may be caused by a defect in the design or manufacture of that product. So, if the original injured plaintiff, the quadriplegic or family of a fatally injured person has sued an auto manufacturer, the automaker (to protect its own interests when it’s discovered that the vehicle had been significantly repaired) will then track down and name the collision repair shop as a third-party defendant. The car company will argue that if it hadn’t been for the shoddy repair to the vehicle, the car would have performed in a safer manner and the person wouldn’t have been killed, paralyzed or severely brain damaged. The car company will seek to transfer at least a portion of that liability if not all of it to the repair shop, alleging that the repairs weakened the vehicle’s crashworthiness.

Q: Do you see generic repair procedures such as the Uniform Procedures for Collision Repair as an acceptable substitute to the manufacturers’ methods of repairing a car?

Byron Bloch: “No, I don’t because I think you have to work very closely with the manufacturers and look at the documentation that they themselves put out. I’ll give you an example: When Ford and GM sell their cab and chassis units to body builders, they have very strict standards and requirements that they provide in rather large books showing how to properly build and install the body to complete the vehicle. And, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that collision repair shops are, in a sense, like body and coach builders. So, the standards, guidelines, recommendations and how-to manuals are there to make sure vehicles are brought up to full crashworthiness standards in addition to beam strength, torsional strength and other aspects designed into the body.”

Q: How about the guy who says, ‘I’ve been fixing cars for 30 years and I know how to make a car safe without a dadgum manual.’ Then, he wings it based on his own experiences rather than using manufacturers’ guidelines for proper repairs. What would you say to him?

Byron Bloch: “There’s something positive to be said for having savviness that comes from extensive repair experience. But, as vehicle technologies have progressed, there are, for example, crush zones designed into the vehicle that are purposely supposed to crush in a certain manner, not allowing intrusion into the passenger compartment. It’s not just a matter of strength; there must be concern for the load path in a crash so that forces are directed and distributed throughout other portions of the vehicle. In offset frontal crashes, these might include the front body structures, structural members along the sides of the passenger compartment, subframe members, rocker sections and more. So, if a savvy repair person looks at a vehicle and says, ‘I know how to make it stronger and stiffer,’ that may, in a crashworthiness sense, aggravate the ability of a front or rear crush zone to fully perform its work.

“For side impact and roof strength, stronger typically is better. For example, adding an internal or external reinforcement or gusset plates where the windshield pillars meet the windshield header and the roof side rails may actually make a car safer by making it stronger, offering more protection so the roof won’t buckle and crush down in a rollover accident. Here’s a case where strengthening a vehicle would be an advantage, whereas strengthening frontal or rear structures and compromising crush zones from doing their maximum work is sort of contradictory to manufacturers’ design.”

Author’s note: Bloch believes cars could be made better and he’s campaigned for better manufacture for years. He believes experienced technicians could, in some cases, make repairs that improve cars. In one of his own projects in 1975, he redesigned the fuel tank system of a full-sized Ford, placing the tank in a less vulnerable location forward of the rear axle instead of behind it in the crush zone (think Pinto), to prove that fuel tanks could survive severe rear impacts. He successfully tested his design at 63 miles per hour, and the design approach has now been accepted as commonplace on most all vehicle brands.

But many technicians don’t possess the knowledge to make judgment calls that involve an automobile’s structure. Besides, many insurers likely wouldn’t pay for the improvement anyway, so most times it just makes good common sense for a shop to err on the side of caution by following manufacturers’ repair procedures. Shops also need to find out if, despite ignoring the manufacturer’s repair plan and opting for one of their own based on experience, their own insurance company will stand behind them on judgment calls.

Bloch says that all too often, insurers make decisions based on price alone, which doesn’t ensure that the quality and integrity of the repairs being done are as sufficient as they should be. He believes insurers should be regulated at both the state and federal levels and that their payment to consumers should include ample funds that will allow shops to track down hidden damage that has traveled throughout the structure rather than merely repairing visual damage only in the direct impact area.
“I think insurance companies should be encouraged by stronger regulations to fully support safer repairs that collision repair specialists think should be done rather than the bare-bones cheapest minimal type of repair they think they can get away paying for,” says Bloch.

Q: Isn’t it interesting that, in court cases, insurers often go in with testimony claiming they are not the experts and that they’re only there to pay the bill? Yet many times insurers won’t listen to the opinion that true collision repair experts offer them?

Byron Bloch: “I think that’s correct. Insurance companies often try to beg off and say they just look at estimates and pay bills. Assuming that the estimates are all equivalent and provided by competent collision repair specialists, insurers choose the one that allows repairs to be performed most economically because they’re profit-driven enterprises. Well, I say they can’t have it both ways. They have to be able to assess whether an estimate of cheap repairs comes because a shop is willing to skimp on safety to keep the bid low and remain favorable in the eyes of the insurer; and in the case of a higher bid from a collision repair specialist, whether it might encompass a more thorough and safe repair without regard for appeasing the insurer’s quest for a low price or any favoritism it could bestow.”

Author’s note: Bloch says he isn’t a fan of DRPs. He believes that deals made behind consumers’ backs that limit their choices and encourage cheap, low-quality repairs do a disservice not only to the consumer but to the auto repair industry. He feels that collision repairers need a self-governing body that will take the initiative to speak out on their behalf, encourage legislation, police its members, train technicians and make policy that will guide them into the future. He believes this body could share information with NHTSA and bring to the table issues that affect the repairability of cars.
Bloch also believes the collision repair industry doesn’t need static standards but ones that evolve, grow and expand.

“The standards,” he says, “must, at the least, not compromise or jeopardize the full compliance of the vehicle to the FMVSS. The repair industry has to recognize that too many of the FMVSS are so minimal and unrealistic to what happens in vehicle collision accidents that the liability risks are still out there for both the original automakers and those companies that do collision repairs, even when their work is in full compliance with the minimal FMVSS. Just to say that the repairs a business performed comply with the FMVSS often times is not a sufficient defense.”

Bloch says the FMVSS should be renamed the “Federal Motor Vehicle Bargain Basement Minimums.”

“Referring to them as ‘bargain basement minimums’ is appropriate because most of them are 20 to 30 years old and obsolete,” he says. “They no longer relate to what happens in real-world collision accidents. At best, they’re very weak, very minimal and very unrealistic, well behind the level of the state of the art performance that could be implemented in our mass-produced vehicles.”
Bloch feels that repairers and shop personnel have an obligation to blow the whistle on shops that fail to perform their work safely.

“It’s supported in law,” he says. “The manufacturer has the obligation to report what may be a safety-related defect. Similarly, if those in the collision repair industry have reason to
suspect that there may be a safety-related problem or defect, they should notify all appropriate parties.”

Bloch says the governing body he suggested should also include a collision repair safety institute to which individual shop and repairer issues and complaints could be brought to the attention of the institute, where remedial and corrective measures could then be taken.

“For repeated violations that aren’t corrected, maybe a shop would lose its certification from the collision repair safety institute or whatever it’s named. Again, that’s where those standards, training sessions and so on would emanate from. It’s called making an industry more professional and having it self-regulate the practices and standards of its members.”

Q: Is there a responsibility on the part of shops to educate consumers about shortcomings in a repair? In other words, if a repair shop sees the poor work of another shop, what obligation does it have to the consumer at that point?

Byron Bloch: “They should bring it out into the open, saying, ‘This repair looks like it’s been skimped on or improperly performed and here’s why.’ We’re talking about a very serious subject, particularly when we’re talking about something that could either cause a motor vehicle collision accident or, in the course of a collision accident, result in the crashworthiness of a vehicle being compromised. It could very well be a life and death issue. I support full disclosure and all items – the good, the bad and the ugly – being brought to the consumer’s attention.”

Q: What do you think will be the greatest challenges we’ll face in the coming decade?

Byron Bloch: “To have competent repair specialists who are well-trained and have the ethics to want to do the most competent, safe repair job and have the full support of insurance companies to encourage that to take place.”

Will it happen? It’s up to each of us to do our part and blow the whistle on those who don’t. And if it gives you some perverse pleasure…enjoy it! You’ll be providing a valuable service to consumers and your industry, and you’ll be moved up to the head of the class.

Writer David Williams produced award-winning show cars and high-quality collision repairs from his Ohio-based shop, Precision Collision, from 1977-1999. Williams was the first WreckCheck licensee to operate in a mobile capacity, primarily assisting attorneys in the states of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. Learn more about Williams and his work at www.SafeCollisionRepairs.com.

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