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  Legislative Feature

Right to Repair Begins Another Cycle, Siphons Industry Resources

Posted 12/11/2008
By Robert L. Redding Jr.

A look back at the history of Right to Repair as well as assessing what its future holds.

As the 111th Congress prepares for leadership races and committee assignments, and as state legislatures see bills filed and pre-filed, it is almost certain that the annual rite of the introduction of Right to Repair legislation will begin in Washington, D.C., and in state houses around the nation.

Proponents of Right to Repair legislation have already initiated activity in Massachusetts and New Jersey as well as Capitol Hill. To paraphrase from a famous and long-passed U.S. senator at a very long public hearing, "Much has been said about this issue but apparently (noting additional witnesses), we need to hear more."

In an effort to move beyond Right to Repair, it might be helpful to look back at what has actually already occurred relative to Right to Repair. We began with the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair legislation offered in Arizona, which failed, but the aftermath produced the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) with its first national meeting at the Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS) in Las Vegas in 2001.

The most important year for the Right to Repair legislation was 2002. The 107th Congress saw Right to Repair legislation introduced, a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue was conducted and the Automotive Service Association (ASA)-Automaker Service Information Agreement was signed. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, had sponsored Right to Repair legislation in the House of Representatives while the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., sponsored the bill in the Senate. ASA leaders from Minnesota had met with Wellstone and explained our concern with obtaining service information from automakers. Wellstone had requested the hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. The hearing was chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Both Wellstone and Dorgan encouraged independent repairers and the aftermarket to reach an industry solution on service information with the automakers. An agreement between ASA and the automakers was reached in the fall of 2002. Unfortunately, Wellstone died in an airplane accident soon after the agreement. Dorgan acknowledged Wellstone's hard work on this issue in a floor statement following Wellstone's death. Dorgan was recognized in Washington, D.C., by ASA in 2007, celebrating the fifth anniversary of the ASA-Automaker Agreement. Dorgan is one of the more senior members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Since the 2002 ASA-Automaker Agreement, we have seen the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) grow in stature. NASTF has a board of directors, staff and an annual budget. NASTF, through the efforts of dedicated industry volunteers, has established a process to ensure independent repairers and locksmiths have access to secure data.

NASTF has held a spring and fall meeting annually, which is open to the public. NASTF committees work throughout the year. At this year's Automotive Service and Repair Week, NASTF announced that it has established new NASTF Service Information Standards, which include a new binding arbitration backstop in the NASTF Dispute Resolution Process. Most importantly, service information complaints remain low and are resolved by the NASTF process.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has audited the automaker Web sites and recognized that they are complying. An industry trade association has initiated an additional third-party audit of the sites.

Despite the progress of NASTF over the past seven years, Right to Repair proponents have continued to pursue a legislative solution. This has included efforts in every congressional session since 2002 and in at least seven states. All of these bills have failed. Legislation in New Jersey is still alive for this session, but the state has not seen a reason to move the bill in previous sessions.

Much public testimony and other public information have been made available on service information issues. This includes testimony in the states where the bill was considered and on Capitol Hill. No less than three separate congressional committees have heard testimony on the bill. At both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Small Business Committee, officials of the Federal Trade Commission testified that they had received no consumer or repairer complaints on this issue and that it was reasonable to assume that an industry solution was the answer. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) also encouraged an industry solution. This came after months of the BBB facilitating the various interested parties at its Virginia headquarters. Please note that neither the FTC nor any state agency has shown an interest in administering service information for the automotive industry.

ASA has held workshops in states around the country and conducted service information demonstrations in the halls of Congress as well as in various state capitals.

What frustrates many is that independent repairers and the aftermarket have many opportunities, some highlighted by priorities of the new Congress, to achieve much for the independent repair sector. These include:

• Expanded vehicle-emissions testing programs

• Increased vehicle-safety inspection programs

Improving air quality and highway safety will attract much attention from policymakers over the next few years; climate legislation and the Highway bill are just two examples.

NASTF is a voluntary, industry solution that almost everyone agrees is succeeding. Independent repairers and the aftermarket could benefit greatly if Right to Repair were put aside and industry resources applied to issues like improving or expanding vehicle emissions and safety inspection programs. There are no laws or procedural restrictions that prevent Right to Repair legislation from being introduced in the future if the NASTF process fails. Members of Congress have asked this very question. Why not let the NASTF have an opportunity to succeed? If it fails, then pursue legislation.

As Congress and the state legislatures prepare for a new beginning, independent repairers and the aftermarket would benefit most if Right to Repair were set aside and industry resources applied to advancing vehicle-safety inspection and emissions-testing programs.

Bob Redding Bob Redding is the Automotive Service Association's Washington, D.C., representative. He is a member of several federal and state advisory committees involved in the automotive industry.

For more information about the legislative activities of ASA, visit www.TakingTheHill.com.


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