Friday 10 August 2007

Does your car know it's rights?

Readers of a certain age, or those with a basic knowledge of modern history, will know about Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the USA. He’s famous for various things. He got US forces out of Vietnam (eventually), he went to China and engaged with Chairman Mao, and he was of course the only US president ever to resign, in his case because of the Watergate scandal.

Just between you and me, despite all of this he wasn’t too bad as a president. He didn’t fall victim to that great temptation of most political leaders: to interfere. When I was at school I was taught, in dismissive terms, by some talented but fundamentally misguided history teachers about “laissez-faire politicians”. These were the ones who apparently left things alone, who didn’t try to get involved and who didn’t bury their sticky fingers in things that weren’t their business, like the market place. I was taught in fact that politicians SHOULD interfere, that they should try and control and command an economy and that it WAS their job to determine prices and how free trade should work. Wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

I’ve been reformed by experience. PJ O’Rourke said that “public sanitation is, like personal security, public defence and rule of law one of the few valid reasons for politics to exist”.

Politicians getting involved in business is a bit like getting me, an opinionated, know-it-all guy to say how insurance companies should run their businesses when in fact I know absolutely nothing about insurance, other than that it’s a good thing and we should all have some. I’m the worst person to get involved in telling an insurance company how to run the technical aspects of their business.

Anyway, back to Richard Nixon, or Tricky Dicky as he was often known. Why am I going on about him? The thing that got me thinking about him was a tactic used in one election campaign by his opponents. They put together a poster of Nixon, looking all swarthy and scowling at the camera with the tagline: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”

The most damning thing they could think of was to suggest that he looked like an untrustworthy used-car salesman. Think about it. How would YOU react if you were told you looked like one? It’s not exactly flattering is it? But why is that? Why are people in the used car sales and repair industry seen as being untrustworthy?

Perhaps because a sizeable proportion of them are.

Before I go too far and defame an entire profession I really must say that a whole lot of them are perfectly decent, honest and trustworthy people. They work hard in a cut-throat industry and treat their customers with respect. Well, some of them do. Honestly, some do.

However one of the largest single areas of complaint we receive is used cars and car repairs. Cars seem to be the source of so many of the problems we hear about. Probably once every week or two we hear from a consumer who feels like he’s been ripped off, usually by a garage or a repair shop.

Some of the stories are exactly the same, time after time. A customer takes his car in for repairs, gets a quote, authorises the work and then later finds that the actual price hugely exceeds the quote he was given. The problem with this is of course that by this time the work can’t be undone. It’s not like a product that’s delivered to your front door that isn’t suitable. You can just send that back. By the time a car has been repaired all sorts of components have been removed and almost always can’t be put back. However at the very least you can expect an explanation. A decent repair shop will give you a full breakdown of every thebe they’re charging you. They’ll also do what my favourite place does. In the back of the car when you pick it up will be a cardboard box full of all the little bits they removed, just to show that they DID in fact do what they said they’d done.

The good news is that there are certain protections provided for us by law. The Consumer Protection Regulations provide some of our favourites.

They’ll be in trouble if “the service is not rendered with reasonable care and skill and such service and any materials used are not fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”.

Also they’ll incur the wrath of the law if “the commodity or service causes a probability of confusion or misunderstanding as to its source, sponsorship, approval, or certification”. If they say they’re using genuine Toyota parts then they simply have to. No excuses.

A particularly good clause states that it’s an unfair business practice if they tell you that “a part, replacement or repair is needed when it is not”. This one is worth repeating. They simply cannot lie about whether a repair or a replacement is needed. If they tell you that you need a new widget and it turns out later that you didn’t then I think you can demand they don’t charge you for it.

The lessons aren’t new ones, they’re all very predictable but I think you can protect yourself very well by letting anyone who’s going to come near your car know that you know your rights. Drop a few subtle hints that you know the Consumer Protection Regulations.

So here’s a challenge to the car repair industry. Who wants to sponsor Consumer Watchdog bumper stickers saying “My car knows it’s rights!”?

This week’s stars!

  • Beauty at the Bull and Bush for always smiling, happy to serve, speedy service!

No comments: