Consumer Law

Fight Over Right to Repair Law Drives On

When you have car trouble where do you take it to get fixed, the dealership or the neighborhood mechanic or local garage? Do you really have a choice? Maybe not.

Car Trouble

Imagine this scenario. You notice a problem with your newer car. You decide to take it to the mechanic you've been dealing with for years to have it fixed. The mechanic can't fix it, though. Why? Because he doesn't know how.

It's not that he's a "bad" mechanic, he simply doesn't have the right tools and information. Many new cars have special software, computers and codes that your mechanic can't use or access. You have to go to a dealership, he tells you, because the car maker only gives its dealerships the information and tools needed to fix your car.

Does this scenario sound ridiculous or far-fetched? It's not. It's exactly what happened to a Massachusetts car owner in late July 2010. And according to her, it cost more in time, convenience and money than if her regular mechanic had fixed her car.

Right-To-Repair Laws

Because of scenarios like this, mechanics, consumer rights advocates and others want right-to-repair laws. These laws would force automakers to make car repair information and tools available to private mechanics and garages instead of making them available at dealerships only.

It may sound simple enough, and may even ring of common sense, but not everyone likes the idea.

What Those For It Say

Those in favor of such laws - like the driver and mechanic in Massachusetts - argue they give consumers choices when it comes to car repairs. They also help small or private garages compete with big dealerships.

They're also willing to pay for the information and tools - they don't expect to get them for free.

The Opposite View

Those opposed to the laws - mainly car makers and dealerships - argue the laws would force car makers to release confidential and propriety information. That information, they claim, would end up in the hands of auto part makers who would use it to make replacement parts that are cheaper than the parts made and sold by the car manufacturers.

It's Been a "Long Haul"

This isn't a new fight. It's been going on since 2001. Several states, including Massachusetts, have tried to pass right-to-repair laws, but none have done so. In fact, Massachusetts' attempt in August 2010. The law was reincarnated in 2011, and so was the bitter fight. It's hoped the state legislature will act before the session ends.

Federal lawmakers have also tried and failed, most recently in 2009.

In the Meantime...

Here are some other things to consider:

  • When shopping for a brand new car or newer pre-owned car, keep in mind that you may need to go to a dealership for many car repairs - this isn't a bad thing, getting to know a service advisor can help you just like getting to know your local mechanic
  • Look into an extended warranty. Car dealerships and private companies sell auto maintenance or service agreements, and you can often buy one months or even years after you bought the car - be careful, though; they don't provide equal protection
  • When a dealership is your only option for a repair, get a written estimate for the repair from your regular mechanic and ask if the dealership can meet or beat that price - this may not be possible due to different equipment or maintenance requirements
  • Run a search online describing your car's problem. Car owners across the US often post messages with helpful information, like computer codes, that may help you or your mechanic diagnose and fix the problem

Contact your elected officials in the US House of Representatives and Senate, as well as and your state's governor and lawmakers. Tell them why you think such a law is needed and encourage them to work on it.

For many of us, our cars are crucial for getting to and from work, getting our children to school, grocery shopping and scores of other commutes. It's inconvenient, to say the least, when mechanical problems pop up. A bad situation shouldn't be made worse by being forced to pay a dealership - and usually more than a local garage - when we'd rather go somewhere else.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can I prevent my mechanic from disclosing or using software codes and other information if they leave my dealership to work at a private garage?
  • Aren't there copyright or patent laws protecting automakers' information?
  • Can a dealership refuse to honor a warranty I bought from a private company?
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