Back to the Future
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying Alaska Airlines. Welcome to 1955.”
Those were the words spoken over the aircraft PA system after we landed and were taxiing to our arrival terminal in Havana, Cuba, last month. After clearing customs, we walked out to the passenger pickup area and vehicle parking lot. I observed the hustle and bustle of hundreds of brightly painted vintage automobiles, most of which rolled off American assembly lines in the early 1950s and several that originated in Russia in the ’60s. As luck would have it, our driver pulled up in what is lovingly referred to as a Muscovy, a Soviet-era sedan with zero style, a 45 horsepower motor, and at least four complete paint jobs holding it all together.
The trunk of the car was open, revealing just enough space for our two suitcases to be wedged in between several 5-gallon gas cans that were filled to the brim. We climbed into the back seat and instinctively reached for the seat belts, but no seats belts could be found. We took off through the swirling haze, spewing exhaust and inhaling the fumes of the gas stored in the trunk right behind our backs. As we hurtled down the highway, I kept thinking that we were basically riding in a clunking, clattering mobile bomb that would either kill us in a fiery explosion if we were hit, or would kill us from asphyxiation due to the inhalation of exhaust and gas fumes.
Ours was not the only vehicle in this condition and, in fact, this was the norm. No seat belts, no SRS, nothing, really, to prevent injury in the event of a collision existed in the vast majority of vehicles on the roads. In addition, there are well-established rules in Cuba that pedestrians do not have the right of way, speed limits and stop signs are merely suggestions, and everyone drives like they are the only vehicle on the road.
At some point in our journey, my oxygen-deprived brain brought this experience into perspective as only a body shop guy’s brain can. I thought, “This is what it’s all about in the collision repair business. Our biggest challenges right now are directly attributable to vehicle light-weighting and the development of advanced safety systems.”
”Have you implemented a procedure in your shop that addresses the functionality of these systems before and after a repair?"
—Steve Morris, director of operations, Pride Collision Centers
I think there are many shops that are becoming very comfortable and efficient when dealing with high-strength steel and aluminum components and there are even some that are embracing carbon fiber and other “exotic” materials. But let’s take a look at safety features and their impact on our business now and in the future. When you read through this, I hope you do a reality check to determine where you and your organization really stand when it comes to being prepared and competent to deal with these systems.
So, let’s leave Cuba behind us to travel to present-day Sweden. There is a movement in Sweden called Vision Zero and its goal is to have zero traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2020. The notion that deaths and injuries are an unavoidable consequence of a mobile society was found to be unacceptable. First, road designers, lawmakers and automakers stopped thinking about trying to prevent all accidents and decided to focus on preventing the serious ones. Road designers implemented more speed bumps, installed median dividers on roads with speed limits over 50 mph, and added roundabouts. Lawmakers allowed the installation of road signs warning of the presence of speed cameras. And one car maker, Volvo, went on record last year pledging that by 2020, no one will die or be seriously injured in a new Volvo vehicle.
How effective is this new way of thinking? Sweden has experienced one of the highest rates of decline in fatalities per miles driven among all industrialized nations. In fact their rate of decline is 40 percent greater than that of the U.S. during the last 15 years.
Some of this thinking about road design and intersection control is migrating to the U.S., where two dozen cities have adopted the movement, including Los Angeles, where my business is located. In January, the city announced a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2025.
Now, here is where we come into the picture: Auto manufacturers are building fatality-free vehicles. There are nine models in the U.S. that experienced zero fatalities in the most recent four-year reporting period, according to IIHS. All manufacturers are installing standard and optional safety systems into the vehicles that are showing up in your shop today. You are seeing autonomous and automated safety features appearing in Civics, Corollas, F-150s and just about every other vehicle coming into your shop. And the increased number of safety systems on board isn’t going to stop. The question is, are you taking this fact into account when you plan a repair on these vehicles? Have you implemented a procedure in your shop that addresses the functionality of these systems before and after a repair? Are you in the camp that says, “It’s really hard to get paid for scans and it’s hard to find the information about these systems, so why bother?” or are you part of the group that says, “I repair vehicles to OEM standards and I focus on these safety systems even if it’s difficult or seemingly impossible to get paid.”