TALLAHASSEE, Fla.-Consumer complaints about automotive repairs have declined sharply since July 1, 1993, when a Florida law to curb fraud took effect. It requires automotive service shops to register with the state; enforcement began last Oct. 1.
The number of written complaints about motor vehicle repairs declined from 4,125 in 1992-93 to less than 1,900 through the 11 months ended this past May 30, according to figures released last month by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates auto repair shops.
``It's a deterrent effect of the new law,'' said Karen MacFarland, director of the state Division of Consumer Services. ``It appears to be that.''
The number of written complaints was expected to end up slightly more than 2,000 by June 30-a 50-percent reduction from the previous fiscal year.
The drop comes as the registration law gives the department administrative authority to fine or shut down auto shops that defraud the public.
The law was adopted in response to increasing consumer complaints about shoddy or illegal auto repair practices, but some shop owners also wanted to clean up the industry's image.
``We've tried to implement this for 10 years to upgrade the industry,'' said Charlie Elder, owner of Ray Gordon Brake Service in Tallahassee and a past president of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), which represents 15,000 independent repair shops nationwide and supports the registration law.
During the law's legislative journey, the Florida Independent Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association also gave its nod of approval, and participated in appointment of an 11-member advisory council that oversaw the law's implementation.
Florida has joined a growing number of states to regulate auto repair shops, including California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Ms. MacFarland said.
Florida's Dade and Broward counties already have their own local ordinances-stricter than the state law-that include licensing requirements.
Auto repair has been one of the top consumer complaints in Florida, with most customers griping about overcharges and unsatisfactory or unnecessary repairs, officials said.
Since January, inspectors have been fanning out across the state to get shop owners to register with the state. About 17,000 of an estimated 28,000 repair shops, or about 60 percent have registered.
After the law took effect, the number of calls about auto repairs soared to more than 27,000, the department said. Most of the calls were inquiries or were resolved over the phone and did not result in written complaints, officials said.
``We need better communication between the mechanic and consumer,'' Ms. MacFarland said. ``A lot of time it's not fraud. It's not enough communications.''
A surge of customer inquiries is expected in the coming weeks because of a new public awareness campaign unveiled June 1 by state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford and the American Automobile Association (AAA).
To alert consumers and auto repair shops about the new law, the campaign will televise statewide a 30-second television public service announcement and offer auto owners a free ``consumer protection kit.''
Available by calling the department's toll-free phone number or from any of AAA's 40 offices statewide, the kit includes a brochure about auto repair fraud and customer rights, and car window stickers.
``When mechanics know that consumers are armed with this information, and will report fraud and fraudulent practices, they will be less likely to rip off consumers,'' Mr. Crawford said at a news conference.
Mr. Yeomans is an Associated Press writer.