By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 10, 2011…..Independent auto repair shops, stung by last year’s failure of legislation intended to force BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and other major manufacturers to share their vehicle repair information, are mounting a renewed effort to get the bill across the finish line this session – and now they say the public is on their side.
A poll obtained by the News Service and commissioned by independent repair shop advocates, known collectively as the Right to Repair Coalition, found that of the 35 percent of respondents familiar with their proposal, more 80 percent support it. The poll, conducted by Chris Anderson of Anderson Robbins, included interviews with 400 registered Massachusetts voters between Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, and carries a 4.9 percent margin of error.
Backers of the bill say independent repair shops frequently turn away customers because manufacturers won’t share information needed to repair modern cars, which more and more rely on coded computer systems.
But major auto manufacturers reject that argument, contending that the legislation is being driven by aftermarket parts resellers seeking to obtain the manufacturers’ trade secrets and duplicate complex and expensive parts more cheaply.
“There’s a lot of concern in the capitol about who this benefits. Does this benefit the big aftermarket companies who want to get engineering codes so they can manufacture parts more cheaply in Asia?” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, who said the demands of independent repair shops were equivalent to Pepsi asking Coca-Cola for its formula or computer programmers forcing Microsoft to reveal its privileged technological data to complete basic repairs.
Opponents of the bill also include the New England Service Station & Automotive Repair Association; Associated Industries of Massachusetts; the Mass. State Automobile Dealers Association; the Mass. Chiefs of Police Association, which claims the bill could lead to an increase in automobile theft; and Rep. Martin Walsh, a former supporter of the bill who claims the legislation would primarily benefit aftermarket parts companies.
Intense lobbying over the fate of the proposal has flummoxed lawmakers. The bill flew through the Senate with little opposition last July but never emerged for consideration in the House, dying in the final days of the 2009-2010 session after chatter among House members over whether it would to come to a vote.
Interests on both sides hired prominent strategists to either kill or advance the bill: opponents turned to former House Speaker Thomas Finneran and the public affairs firms Rasky Baerlein and O’Neill and Associates, and proponents of the bill tapped prominent Democratic strategists Stephen Crawford and Larry Carpman, as well as Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition.
This time, proponents, say, more lawmakers have signed onto the bill than before, despite the departure of the proposal’s lead sponsor, Stephen Buoniconti, who left the state Senate in a failed bid for Hampden County district attorney. Kinsman told the News Service 64 lawmakers had signed onto the legislation in January, compared to 43 last session, and he noted that the Right to Repair Coalition had more than doubled its membership since July.
Glenn Wilder, who runs Wilder Brothers American Car Care Center in Scituate, a 104-year-old company, said that more than once a month he has to turn away a customer because he doesn’t have the necessary information to repair that customer’s vehicle.
“It’s getting worse every year,” Wilder told the News Service. “If you want to invest in the equipment and train your people to work on these things, then you should have information necessary to complete the repairs. We’ve been in business since 1907, other customers have been coming here for decade. They may not want to go someplace else.”
Asked why he believed the legislation had failed in recent years, Wilder said, “Money tends to guide people’s opinion, unfortunately. [Opponents] spent a lot of money discrediting the point of the bill.”
But Bergquist argued that independent repair shop owners supporting the bill are misguided. Noting that many independent shops are opposed to the Right to Repair legislation, she said nearly all repair information and necessary diagnostic computer codes are available on a web site, www.nastf.org. The real issue, she said, is that independent repair shops need to invest in the training and education necessary to make repairs using the already-available information.
“Mechanics actually need the tools to fix whatever is the issue, and some mechanics have chosen to invest in education and training and the tools to fix the vehicles once they diagnose them through this web site,” she said. “All independent repairmen, costs and ability to fix a vehicle quickly for a consumer is their topmost priority … In this instance, the independent repairmen who have signed on believe that somehow this is going to reduce their cost. In reality, the legislation only allows them the opportunity to sue, to pursue legal action, which I don’t think is what they’re interested in.”
Bergquist said manufacturers “still feel confident” they can kill the bill again this session.
The bill was sent last month to the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, co-chaired by Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers) and Sen. Thomas Kennedy (D-Brockton).