Full disclosure: I am in the Collision Industry. This is possibly the largest industry you’ve never heard of. Billions of dollars change hands each year, and it’s not all about body shops and insurance premiums. OEM, aftermarket and recycled parts providers are a big piece of the pie, as are refinish materials and tools. My corner of the industry provides the software tools needed by both major players, the shops and the carriers, to manage claims, estimate damage repair costs and ensure that everything runs smoothly. There is a lot of animosity between the shops and the carriers and we are, to a certain extent, the rope in the tug of war between them. But that’s another story, altogether.
Let’s start with a brief glossary of industry terms:
DRP – Or “direct repair program” is basically an agreement between a carrier and a group of shops that promises those shops lots of business as long as they agree to a reduced set of labor rates, available capacity and utilization of alternate (non-OEM) parts in the repair process, among other cost-reducing things.
Severity – This is the cost to repair damage cause by a collision. One of the metrics carriers use to rate their shops is “average severity” and they insist that the shops do what they can to “be a good trading partner” and limit severity wherever they can.
Cycle Time – This is another metric carriers use to measure the efficacy of their DRP shops. Cycle Time represents the number of days, “keys-to-keys” it takes for the shop to complete a repair. Even though a repair costs what it costs, there are daily costs like car rental that add up along the way. Shops that can meet or beat the expected repair time are more highly valued to carriers.
Steering – the FORBIDDEN practice that some (but by no means all) carriers might use to get you to go to one of their DRP shops.
BAR - Not where you imbibe in this case. This is your state's Bureau of Automobile Repair that regulates the practices of all repair shops.
Document ALL the things!
I’m not going to give you any legal advice because 1) I’m not an attorney and b) these things vary from state to state and III) even an attorney would be full of shit if they claimed to know all the variances between all 50 states. I will say that at the scene of the accident, make sure you take as many photos as you can (safely) capture, both close-ups of the damage to all vehicles involved as well as wider-angled shots that provide some clue as to what happened and who is at fault. Make sure you capture the “undamaged” angles as well because “things” have been known to happen when the car is being towed to the shop or tow yard and it is not unheard of for damage to “happen” to your car while it’s being repaired at the shop. Shops capture photos when a car is dropped off for this very same reason. Obvious advice being obvious, capture the other driver’s deets (photos of their license and insurance cards is a good idea) and make sure you get the names/stories/contact info of any witnesses you can identify. It is not at all unusual for someone to acknowledge fault at the scene, only to claim it was yours when they notify their carrier. By that time those witnesses you thought you didn’t need suddenly become very important.
Know Your Rights!
Fun Fact: 85% of the dollars spent in all of the nation’s body shops are spent by insurance carriers. They are the 800lb gorilla in the neighborhood and, as such, hold a great deal of influence on the industry. That said, they are not as evil as you might think (although some are better than others). JD Powers rates them based on customer satisfaction annually. If you want a recommendation on which carrier is best, refer to that list and give it more weight than the anecdotal recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. I will not recommend any carriers because that would be a conflict of interest since many are customers of my company. Neither will I recommend any shops for the same reason (although, that’s much harder to do for obvious reasons). Shops can be researched by consulting Yelp and the like and by checking for unresolved “issues” with your state’s BAR or your local Better Business Bureau, etc. Also, check to see whether they are active with state or national shop organizations. In my experience, shops that have (current) association stickers on their doors tend to be the most “current” in repair procedures (CRITICAL) and most active in the industry. This means they “give a shit” and are most likely to provide a quality repair.
The most important thing consumers need to know is that there are specific rules set forth by each state's insurance commission and BAR that regulate the repair process. Carriers must answer to the state insurance commissioner and shops must answer to the state’s BAR. Whatever learning you can do to understand your state’s specific regulations is a good thing. I’m going to be very general here and only talk to things that are universal (in the US, at least) in order to avoid a #10-sized can of worms.
The estimate is the document that drives everything and, regardless of the state in which you reside, you can get one from the shop of your choice. While carriers would really, really like you to use one of their DRP shops so they can control the process, and may even “steer” you to one, do not fall for it. If you’re ever feeling pressured by your carrier to go to a certain shop, or to select from a list of shops, ask them outright, “Are you trying to STEER me to one of your shops? Because that is not legal and I want to go to [Shop X]. They will back-peddle faster than you can say “insurance commissioner.”
“Proper” vs. “Improper” Repair Procedures
Cars used to be cars. In the old days, there was precious little difference between repairing collision damage on a Rolls Royce or a Ford. Things have changed since then, If you’re one of the high-falootin’ Jalops with a newer Audi, Merc, Porsche, etc, etc, your car is probably built using “special materials” like aluminum or ultra high-strength steel and requires a specific repair process that almost always requires certification. If the shop you wish to use to repair your RS5 is not certified by Audi, for example, leave and find another shop that is. Improperly-repaired collision damage can be DEADLY in the next collision. Saving a few bucks is not worth your life.
There are a lot of non-OEM parts options out there. These include “Like-kind Quality” (recycled) parts salvaged from another car and Aftermarket parts. One way or another, make sure that the ONLY parts used to repair your car are either OEM new or “recycled,” or “certified” aftermarket parts. This is an issue for fitment as well as safety. I’ve seen many, many demonstrations clearly show that SOME aftermarket parts do not perform like OEM parts in a collision. Since crush zones in cars is made up of a collection of parts that need to work together in a certain way to perform as they were designed, the use of some AM parts can create a “weakest link” situation that you do not want to find yourself in. Certified AM parts, like those certified by Diamond Standard or CAPA are the way to go if your car has reached the age when insurance carriers can require the use of AM parts. Watch out for this. It is the Wild West in the AM parts industry right now and there are numerous providers in China (for example) that are churning out utter crap. There are also really good AM parts out there so, YMMV.
Take that check and walk?
One more important thing: NEVER settle (take a check from your carrier) if you ONLY have a preliminary estimate written by a field appraiser! The practice for FA's is to only "write up the damage they can see." You will almost never (depending on a more severe hit) understand the actual cost to repair your car with that first estimate. Estimate supplements are written by repair shops on almost every claim they repair for this reason. They write these after fully tearing down the damage so they can see the real story. Unless it is a very superficial hit, demand a post tear-down estimate before settling.
Feel free to chime in with questions on things you’d like me to clarify or anything I may have missed (I wrote this pretty quickly). I hope you never need any of this this advice/insight, BTW ;)