Auto repair shops often skip a vital safety step

Yet many repair shops don’t care. They lack expensive equipment, trained technicians, and even the floor space needed to calibrate security sensors. Thus, thousands of “fixed” cars are running with unreliable ADAS sensors that may fail to warn the driver of a potential disaster.

“I think the majority of shops definitely don’t,” said Kevin Gallerani, owner of Cape Auto Body in Plymouth and president of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Massachusetts, which represents auto body repair shops across the country. ‘State. “I hate to say that. I’m probably going to get murdered for this article, but there has to be a red flag.

A recent national survey conducted by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety found that approximately 90% of new car dealerships include proper calibration with every repair. It is especially the small independent businesses that are missing.

“Shops can’t keep up with technology and invest enough time and money in their people and equipment,” said Mike Johnson, owner of Crown Collison Solutions in Bridgewater. “They’re in survival mode.”

A target for laser alignment is attached to the rear wheel of a 2020 Nissan at Crown Collision Solutions in Bridgewater. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

According to CCC Intelligent Solutions, an auto insurance software company, approximately 60% of cars in the United States have at least one ADAS system on board. Rear-mounted sensors to assist with parking are by far the most common. But other sophisticated systems once found only on luxury models are becoming standard features. These include blind spot warning alarms, systems to prevent drivers from straying into the wrong lane, adaptive headlights that aim in the direction the car is turning, and automatic emergency brakes to avoid collisions with pedestrians or other cars.

These systems rely on data received from cameras or radar units mounted on the car in various locations – the front and rear bumpers, side mirrors, door panels or behind the windshield. If changes are made to any of these components, it’s time to recalibrate.

“It can be as simple as removing the bumper cover to replace a water pump on a vehicle,” said Chris Chesney, vice president of training at Repairify, a Texas-based company offering internet-based support. to auto repair shops. ADAS-equipped cars have radar emitters under the bumpers, which should be checked for proper alignment, Chesney said. Other ADAS features, like aiming headlights, require recalibration each time the car undergoes a simple wheel alignment.

“Every manufacturer has a position statement that a calibration should be performed after virtually every repair,” said Sean O’Malley, senior testing coordinator at the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.

O’Malley said his organization has no data on whether improperly tuned ADAS sensors cause traffic accidents. Investigators will blame the human driver and ignore the possibility of faulty radar, he said.

But one of O’Malley’s colleagues noticed that his car, fitted with an emergency braking system, sounded an alert when it went under a bridge, but not when it got too close to the car. who preceded her. Technicians discovered that the car’s front radar was pointing up instead of straight ahead – a minor error that could have caused a rear-end collision.

Calibrations are best done in a purpose-built service bay without clutter or bright colors to confuse vehicle cameras. Also, the ground must be as flat as possible, for a precise alignment of the sensors.

Thomas Johnson (left) works on a 2020 Nissan with his father Michael Johnson, owner of Crown Collision Solutions in Bridgewater. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

The shop also needs a suite of calibration equipment that can cost $25,000 or more. This includes a set of targets that are placed at specific locations around the car. The car measures light and radar waves bouncing off these targets and uses the data to recalibrate its sensors, using a computer plugged into the vehicle’s data port.

Some vehicles require an additional step – dynamic calibration, which is performed while the car is driving.

A total recalibration job can take several hours and cost between $450 and $1,200, said Paul Chaet, general manager of the Allston Collision Center in Boston. His shop can’t afford the big investment in calibration equipment, so Chaet entrusts it to a facility in Dedham.

Gary Machiros, owner of Angie’s Service in Newbury, has his own calibration bay but says many of his colleagues don’t. Besides the cost, there is often a reluctance to master the technology. “Some of these body shops are old school guys,” Machiros said, “and they’re not good with computers.”

Gallerani also blames Massachusetts’ insurance law, which sets a minimum labor rate of $40 an hour for auto body repair, the lowest rate of any US state. “It’s killing the industry in Massachusetts,” he said. A bill to raise the minimum to $55 an hour died in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year. Gallerani said that with such low pay scales, body shops cannot afford to install calibration equipment and train their workers in its use.

But the Insurance Institute’s O’Malley is optimistic that independent car repair shops will eventually get on board. “The problem is slowly solving itself,” he said.

In the meantime, owners of ADAS-equipped cars must fend for themselves, asking technicians a simple question: “Are you calibrating?”

Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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