Regulation and oversight help keep consumers—and their cars—safe
Having car trouble is trouble enough; getting it fixed shouldn’t be. That’s because, decades ago, California enacted robust car-repair legislation to protect you and your vehicle—protection that continues strong today.
FIXING PAST PRACTICES
In the early and mid-20th century, if you had an issue with your DeSoto, Edsel, or Plymouth—which happened frequently—you had a wide variety of repair options. According to the National Museum of American History, to keep up with high repair demand, many machinists, blacksmiths, bicycle mechanics, and others started auto repair shops. Car dealers and gasoline stations also offered repairs, and most cities had garages that stored, cleaned, fueled, and serviced automobiles. Even oil companies got in on the repair trend, using brand awareness to attract customers.
But once those customers came in to get help for their car trouble, a different kind of car trouble could follow: There were no uniform trainings, oversights, or quality assurances among the tens of thousands of individuals and shops offering repairs, and sometimes the shops and their workers didn’t have the customers’ best interests, or those of their cars, at heart.
An exhaustive 1971 Cornell Law Review article on national automotive repair service practices chronicled all-too-common scams of the times. In addition to “incompetent” mechanics, author John J. Gallagher outlined major and even dangerous types of fraud played out on customers and their vehicles, including:
- Misleading advertising, especially the “bait and switch” technique of advertising a low price for specific repairs to lure customers, only to then tell customers to have a “better” job done than the one advertised at a higher price.
- False discounts and guarantees, like 25% off without stating the actual job price.
- Estimate abuses, including the “escalator estimate” that would cause customers to pay substantially more for additional repairs or a full guarantee of the repairs in order for the original authorized repair job to be completed.
- Unnecessary work, which sometimes even featured mechanics producing “a troublesome rattle or noise” to convince customers to have more work done.
- Worn and used parts sold as new, fooling consumers and endangering safety.
- Customers flat-out charged for services not rendered.
AN ACT FOR AUTO-REPAIR CHANGE
Gallagher concluded that implementing a state automobile-repair regulatory agency modeled after the “highly successful” California Bureau of Repair Services (now today’s Bureau of Household Goods and Services) was the best way to protect consumers.
Californians concurred, with state lawmakers passing the 1971 Automotive Repair Act establishing the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR). The act made BAR the licensing and regulating authority over automotive repair dealers, and also gave BAR the authority to license and regulate stations and individuals that perform services in the areas of lamp and brake inspection and repair.
In addition, BAR became the administrator of the California Smog Check Program in 1984 as a result of separate legislation.
DEPENDABLE SERVICES FOR TODAY’S DRIVERS
For more than 40 years, the Department of Consumer Affairs’ BAR has helped protect California consumers. Today’s BAR features three main organizational divisions: the Licensing, Administration and Consumer Assistance Division; the Field Operations and Enforcement Division; and the Smog Check Engineering and Information Services Division.
BAR also administers several vital consumer programs:
• Auto Body Inspection Program, which offers no-cost inspections to consumers to verify that collision repairs were performed correctly.
• Consumer Assistance Program (CAP), offering repair assistance and retirement options to consumers whose vehicles fail a Smog Check.
• Referee Program, which assists consumers with Smog Check inspection disputes, inspections of unusual vehicles, and locating hard-to-find emissions parts.
• Roadside Inspection Program, which conducts roadside inspections to gather California vehicle emissions data.
• Smog Check Program, aimed at reducing air pollution by identifying vehicles needing repairs to correct excess emissions.
• STAR Program, which certifies Smog Check stations and technicians meeting specified performance standards for the testing of vehicles.
“Protecting consumers from unethical and unlawful business practices in the automotive repair industry is our top priority; reducing vehicle emissions and safeguarding the environment is equally important,” said BAR Chief Patrick Dorais. “These priorities are fostered by our efforts to educate and support consumers and licensees, and continuing to enhance the California Smog Check Program.”