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Crash course

Could replacement parts cause problems for your car down the road?

If your Ford Taurus gets T-boned in a collision, you might simply assume that it will be repaired with parts supplied by Ford. After all, it makes sense to use the exact same parts that came off the assembly line. In the world of crash repairs, however, the issues of convenience, cost and safety can sometimes collide.

About 20 years ago, insurers began trimming costs by using less expensive aftermarket parts (also known as generic parts) when repairing cars damaged in a collision, instead of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts found on auto assembly lines. The use of aftermarket parts saves private insurers about $150 million a year.

While it’s good business for the insurance industry, critics contend that insurers may be cutting corners on safety and diminishing the value of repaired vehicles by using these components. After all, the parts can vary dramatically in fit and quality, since no Canadian federal agency oversees the testing and certification of replacement body panels and crash components. And while some are manufactured by well-known auto parts giants that also build original parts, others are just as likely to be made by more obscure firms in Taiwan.

Debate on the issue heated up in 1999 when an Illinois judge found that State Farm Insurance was in breach of contract by failing to restore vehicles to their pre-accident condition because they used aftermarket parts. While this case is now under appeal, similar class-action suits have sprung up in Canada. Lawyer Harvin Pitch of the Toronto law firm Teplitsky, Colson believes the issue affects millions of Canadians.

Where you live could determine how you’re affected. While B.C. and Quebec have standards for aftermarket parts, most provinces don’t. Only about three per cent of aftermarket parts are certified by the U.S.-based Certified Automotive Parts Association (capa), because the car companies that dominate collision repairs tend to use OEM parts, leaving little room for substitutes. An uncertified aftermarket part may be thinner and have fewer welds and less structural integrity, compromising safety. That could mean a bumper doesn’t protect as well as it should in a crash, for example. Despite the potential problems, John Norris, executive director of the Hamilton-based Collision Industry Action Group, a trade association of body shops, stands behind the use of aftermarket parts that meet standards. He has, however heard of a case in which a driver brought a leased vehicle to a dealership for repairs after a collision. When the driver returned the vehicle to a different dealership after the lease expired, he was charged an extra $1,500 for “diminished value” because aftermarket parts were used.

“Of the entire marketplace, 80 per cent of crash replacement parts are only available through the car companies themselves,” notes capa executive director Jack Gillis. “It’s the biggest secret monopoly in North America.”

Ultimately, appeals courts may have the final say on this issue, either allowing for the continued use of aftermarket parts or compelling insurers to stop purchasing them. In the meantime, don’t ever approve collision repairs blindly. “Consumers need protection from both the automaker parts monopoly and from poor quality parts,” says Gillis. “Insurance companies are in the position of offering us both if they insist on using as many certified parts as possible.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.