By Greg Neuman, CEI Senior Manager of Quality Control
Fleet managers are under constant pressure to reduce costs and save money, so it’s no surprise that many look to save on collision repairs whenever possible. In fact, third-party accident management companies like CEI compete on the basis of being able to do exactly that: find ways to make the customer pay less for parts and labor.
But it’s a false economy when a fleet vehicle is repaired in a way that saves money in the short run but exposes the vehicle to even more severe damage or threatens the health and safety of the driver in another crash. Just one fatality or one serious injury can wipe out the savings from hundreds of repairs where cost was the primary or only consideration — not to mention the associated human costs.
So at CEI, when it comes to repairing fleet vehicles, we take our clients’ best long-term interests and the safety of fleet drivers as our first priority. As a result, it’s not unusual for us to recommend that our customers spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars more on a repair than the original estimate called for. To illustrate, I’m going to dig into our case files.
Case No. 1: 2015 Chevrolet Equinox with 11,000 miles.
This vehicle was hit from behind while stopped at a traffic light and rammed into the rear of the vehicle in front of it. The damage to the front was less extensive than in the rear, and both the repair shop and an independent appraiser thought the front bumper only suffered cosmetic damage. Both estimated that the front repairs would cost only $425.
But when the licensed physical damage appraiser in my department assigned to the claim examined the damage photos carefully, he suspected that there was more extensive damage under the bumper, rendering it incapable of meeting the manufacturer’s specifications to safely absorb another impact which, at high speed, could result in severe inner structural damage and put the driver at risk.
As a result, CEI recommended repairing the structural damage in front for $850, more than $425 over the original estimates.
Case No. 2: 2016 Chevrolet Equinox with 6,900 miles.
Similar to the first case, this nearly brand-new SUV was hit from the rear at a stop light, but had no other vehicle in front of it. The visible damage was to the rear tailgate door, which, despite suffering a large, deep crease, still opened and closed securely. There was also what appeared to be minor damage to the rear bumper, but the vehicle was driveable, and it was several days after the accident that the fleet driver took it to the shop for an estimate.
The shop estimate called for replacing the tailgate and repairing the bumper for a total cost of $3,100. Believing it safe to drive, the shop set a later appointment for the repairs, and released the vehicle to the driver to use during the interim.
But when he examined the images, my in-house appraiser was concerned that the impact was probably severe enough to have caused further damage that compromised the vehicle’s safety. He called the shop and driver right away and asked for the vehicle’s rear end to be partially disassembled for what we call a “tear-down” estimate. What the new photos showed was that the vehicle’s inner structure, including the rear body panel assembly, as well as the bumper absorber and reinforcement, were compromised and needed replacement. The cost: another $2,100.
Case No. 3: 2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck with 70,000 miles.
The damage to this pickup came from driving over roadway debris in a construction zone. The damage was to the frame, including a cross piece that supports the engine and transmission, which was ripped off from one side of the frame and bent. Repairing it improperly risked a catastrophic failure.
The least expensive way to repair it, which the shop recommended in its original estimate, was to bend back the cross member and reattach it, which would cost $1,500. The problem was that the manufacturer’s guidelines identified replacing the part as the only way to assure the vehicle’s safety. But Ford only sells the part if you buy the entire frame and take most of the vehicle apart to install it – a repair with a total estimated cost of $8,000.
My department found a middle ground: we recommended buying the complete frame, but then sectioning off the part and installing it in the vehicle’s existing frame, a repair that meet’s Ford’s safety standards. Because much less labor is involved in that repair, the total estimate came to $5,500 – significantly more than the original estimate, but still thousands of dollars below the third alternative.
Saving money on collision repairs is a legitimate and achievable goal. But it takes special expertise and a commitment to careful reviews of repair estimates to strike the right balance between short-term savings on the one hand, and long-term savings and driver safety on the other.