WASHINGTON-Access to auto repair information, tax credits for worker training and state inspection/maintenance (I/M) programs will remain at the forefront of the Automotive Service Association's Washington agenda in 2002.
Unfortunately, the agenda of independent auto repairers usually isn't a big-ticket item in Congress, said Robert L. Redding, ASA Washington representative. The economic stimulus package debated there at the end of 2001 ``could be weighted more toward small business.''
``We have needs too, and we're hurting,'' Mr. Redding added. ``People are reluctant to buy anything other than necessities. The good side supposedly is that people would be reluctant to buy new cars, so after the warranty is up, we get the cars. But with the auto dealers offering 0-percent financing, that's going to push cars out of play for us. The only question is, how long can they do it?''
The need to stay competitive with auto dealers is the moving force behind the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act, which was introduced in Congress last summer. The bill addresses a long-time complaint of independent auto repairers-that auto makers deliberately restrict access to diagnostic equipment and service information to their dealers.
Although the bill was one of those caught in the legislative logjam created by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Mr. Redding is optimistic that the issue-a problem at least since the mid-1970s-will be resolved in 2002.
Last fall, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and all but two of its members signed letters of intent to provide independent auto technicians with all the diagnostic tools and service information they needed to repair late-model vehicles.
The ASA is meeting with the alliance in January ``to try and bring closure to this issue,'' Mr. Redding said. If successful, the effort will obviate the need for legislation.
This represents ``a 180-degree turnaround'' from the previous policies of auto manufacturers, he added.
``One Mercedes repair specialist wrote the company in the 1970s, asking for more information,'' he said. ``Mercedes essentially said, `We don't have to give this to you; we think only our dealers should repair our cars.''' But Mercedes now has signed on.
Another legislative item the ASA strongly supports is the Skilled Workforce Enhancement Act (SWEA), which offers business owners with fewer than 250 employees a $15,000 tax credit for training apprentices in highly skilled trades.
This is a major issue for independent auto repair shops, which too often lack the money or resources to train workers, according to Mr. Redding. He pointed out that one of the main sponsors of SWEA-Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill.-is the nephew of Russ Verona, a former ASA chairman and owner of a collision repair shop in Rockford, Ill.
For years the ASA has been trying to get the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promote state safety I/M programs as a way of assuring vehicle safety on the road. It will continue to do so in 2002, despite a notable lack of response from the agency, according to Mr. Redding.
``We're down to 19 state safety programs, and that's pathetic,'' he said. ``There's no encouragement from NHTSA; I/M is so far down on their list that they can't find it.''
One hope on the horizon for I/M is the NHTSA reauthorization in 2002. ``There is some debate as to whether that will be done broadly or narrowly,'' Mr. Redding said. ``If it's broad, and we hope it will be, we can look for I/M to come up.''
Among other issues the ASA hopes will come up in 2002 is reform of the antitrust rules governing the insurance industry. Because that industry is exempt from federal antitrust laws, there is no oversight on the rules it sets in dealing with collision shops and other repair facilities.
``We have some decent state insurance commissions and repair insurance laws, but they're not enforced for the most part,'' Mr. Redding said. ``We will take a hard look at how the states are doing on regulating insurance.
``For 30 years we fought for federal regulation of the insurance industry,'' he added. ``It will be very difficult to achieve that in this Congress. But we hope that if the states are going to regulate the industry, we can push for decent state enforcement. That currently doesn't exist.''
The ASA also is deeply involved in its ``Green Shop'' cooperative program with the Environmental Protection Agency, in which the EPA helps repair shops to meet all relevant environmental regulations and develop ``a long-term, multi-stage environmental plan,'' Mr. Redding said.
Repair facilities need this guidance, since they rarely have the resources to concentrate on environmental compliance. ``Big companies have a vice president for environment,'' he said. ``We don't have that in repair facilities. Someone is in charge of that in a repair facility, but it's not his sole responsibility.''
Besides the ASA, the Tire Association of North America and the International Tire & Rubber Association-which will officially merge in 2002 pending member approval-said they will use some of their combined strength to watch repair issues more closely in the future, including SWEA (skilled worker employment act) and the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act.
``More than 90 percent of TANA members are in auto repair, and 50 to 60 percent of ITRA members,'' said Roy E. Littlefield III, ITRA government relations director. But he and Becky MacDicken, government affairs director for TANA, said they knew nothing of the letters of intent on service information signed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and its members.