Are aftermarket replacement parts dangerous? — update

The bodies of modern cars like this one from the new Ford Taurus, are precisely engineered to withstand a crash

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One of the real benefits of having a blog about cars is the interactions with readers who know a lot more about a given topic than I do. After I posted a few weeks ago about some testing Ford did that called into question the crash-worthiness of aftermarket parts body shops use to repair wrecked cars, an interested reader e-mailed:

Some context for your article on after market parts.

When a policyholder has a collision claim, insurers’ claim centers “recommend”or “suggest” body shops in their “DRP” (direct repair program) networks who have granted the insurer certain preferred economic terms, who will treat the vehicle owner well, and who will finish the car in a pleasing way.

The bodies of modern cars like this one from the new Ford Taurus, are precisely engineered to withstand a crash

In addition to an interest in cost control of the repair, the insurer has an equally substantive interest in pleasing the policyholder at this point.  The typical vehicle owner will pay premiums for 6-7 more years before they have another fender-bender.  So, if that driver is actuarially typical, this is the moment at which they are at their maximum prospective value to the insurer, and their maximum value as well to a competitor if they switch insurers after an unsatisfactory claim experience.

About a third of those policyholders do take the insurer’s recommendation and go to the “recommended” body shop.  That would be at least 3 million a year.  Of those, about 35 percent, or more than a million, are “non-driveables,” strongly implying a degree of damage involving the unibody, the dominant physical function of the vehicle’s crashworthiness.

The whole noisy aftermarket parts flap, ironically, serves as something of a distraction from a much larger part of the safe repair issue. The soundness of a collision repair is a direct function of the shop’s equipment and the technician’s training.  Measuring, straightening and corrosion protection are key elements, but the core issue is welding.

The car may be perfectly restored superficially, and the owner delighted.  But neither the owner (to whom it would never occur) nor the insurer has any practical post-repair way  to determine whether the car’s unibody, now enclosed beneath those shiny panels, has been brought back to the crashworthy specifications the factory designed and insists on.

The unibody of a car less than five or six years old contains, at various points,  HS (high strength) and/or UHSS (ultra high strength) and/or DP (dual phase) steels and, often, even some aluminum.  Repairing these absolutely requires a combination of particularly sophisticated welding equipment, properly supplied with upgraded power, operated by a technician specifically trained in those materials.  An insurer can determine and document in a couple of hours whether a given shop has them.  I am not aware of any such initiative, but I can’t find anyone who thinks anything but a small percentage of shops are adequately equipped with the combination of training and equipment.

Meanwhile, it’s a fair question to ask how many structural repairs have been accumulating out on the road over the past few years, in which the energy absorption, side impact  intrusion resistance, and even air bag deployment timing, are something other than what the vehicle manufacturer designed.

This is a tough issue. On the one hand, it’s infinitely easier to just take the repair your insurance company provides and pretend that everything will be fine. I think that if I were involved in a crash where the car suffered significant structural damage, I would want to make sure the car went to the best body shop I could find, at the very least, even if that meant a fight with my car insurance company.

And I’d get a couple of opinions on whether or not the car was salvageable from a couple of good mechanics.  If it wasn’t, I’d push for the car to be totaled. Because as much as it would stink to have to come up with the replacement cost for a new vehicle, I’m not sure I could live with my family riding in a car thats safety might be seriously compromised.

What do you think?