ABS Bodyshop Services has stirred up a hornets' nest with its report attacking standards within the bodyshop industry. Francis Higney reports

It would appear that the wheels have come off with regard to standards of service and expertise offered by many accident repair bodyshops. Who says so? The biggest independent network of bodyshops does.

That sort of statement is right up there with turkeys voting for Christmas and Celtic and Rangers ground-sharing - not the sort of thing you hear every day and, therefore, worthy of attention.

ABS Bodyshop Services is owned by the independent member bodyshops with which it forms partnerships.

Last month it issued a white-hot paper that laid into standards within its own industry. Failings it identified include: repairers not ensuring that standards programmes were being adequately maintained; little regard to applying standards of estimation; poor repair techniques and methodology; incorrect use of safety critical checks and testing and lack of inspection by insurance engineers leading to shoddy practice.

The report's author, Alan Hodgkinson, concedes that some repairers could be failing customers over the standard of work they have been providing.

However, he says the finger of blame extends to trade bodies and insurers who have been less than rigorous in making sure standards were maintained.

The result, Hodgkinson believes, is a catastrophe waiting to happen - especially as the materials and technologies employed by manufacturers become ever more advanced.

It would not be difficult, he says, to envisage a situation where a vehicle is repaired at an insurer-approved bodyshop and subsequently is involved in a major accident where the repair is shown to have contributed to the cause of the crash. The insurer may then be sued for lack of duty of care in directing the vehicle to an ill-equipped repairer.

So the ABS advocates the establishment of a new bodyshop standard, policed by an independent third party, to oversee repairers and set new standards to cope with the demands of today's technology.

Trade standards
In the past, various organisations have set standards for accident repair bodyshops to achieve and adhere to. Predominately these have been the repair industry's own trade associations such as the VBRA, MVRA and the RMI, through its bodyshop division.

Most repairers opted for one or more of these standards, paying subscriptions and inspection fees, only when the required certificates became a pre-requirement to appointment as an approved repairer to particular work providers.

"The trade associations are ineffective at applying standards and the majority of repairs are not physically inspected by insurance engineers and are authorised at a lower skill level," says Hodgkinson. "This has removed the safety net of ensuring that the repairer is appropriately equipped and capable of carrying out the work. In today's litigious world, insurers and other work providers need to be extremely careful to ensure that they place work in the right place."

The ABS wants Thatcham, expert in research into crash repairs, to be the new standard bearer.

But Thatcham is not keen to involve itself as a standard setter and industry policeman.

Instead, it wants to concentrate on making sure the repair industry has the skills and knowledge base to cope with new developments in the marketplace.

"We are aware that vehicles are becoming more and more complex and that is going to escalate in the coming years. We are going to make sure that the data needed to cope with this is going to go to the right people," says Thatcham marketing manager Lesley Upham.

Industry anger
To this end it is looking to establish regional training venues and introduce a recognised apprenticeship and continuing professional development scheme.

Thatcham recognises that there is " work to be done" in bringing some repair stations up to scratch, but will not partake in the ABS plan "at the moment".

Calls for a new industry standard have also been dismissed by the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association (VBRA).

VBRA spokesman Ron Nicholson says: "We are not sure where they are coming from - they are running down their own members.

"I am happy that repairers are aware that new equipment is coming into vehicles and that they will invest in new equipment to deal with that."

In fact, Nicholson regards the warning about the new technology as something of a red herring. "You could say the same thing about the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years. Good repairers have always kept up to date with training and equipment. It's easier to train with the new technology today than it was years ago."

However, insurers and work providers will need to give their support to such a scheme by recognising this single standard to ensure its success.

Peter Tart, the head of motor supply chain at AXA, admits there is an issue to be faced, but does not agree that we have reached the stage where it is necessary to invent a new standard.

"It's clear that investment needs to be made by the repairers and we, as an industry, just can't leave that to them. But the question here appears to be, not one of quality, but of the survival of the independents."

Tart notes that manufacturers set the standards for repair and the industry (through Thatcham) applies the methodology. He envisages AXA using a mixture of franchise operations and independents in the future.

It's where CIS is at the moment.

"We saw this coming and as a result now have over 500 approved repairers - half of which are franchises and half independent," says CIS spokesman Duncan Bowker.

But Hodgkinson says: "The insurance world needs to face up to the requirement for an independent graded accreditation programme to ensure only correctly equipped repairers working to standards of expertise and tested repair methodology are approved for their networks.

"The alternative is that insurers and work placers take the safe route of directing the repair back towards manufacturer bodyshops or letting the customer make the choice. Both of these scenarios will be very expensive."