Digital imaging is now widely accepted in the industry. Christopher McKevitt investigates the technology behind a new form of accident management

Not long ago, a Claimsplus customer received a speeding fine from the police, who alleged his jeep was driving too fast. But at the time of the alleged offence the jeep was in for repair. The repairer denied driving the jeep. The police, convinced of their case, supplied a photograph of the jeep speeding

Enter Claimsplus. The company's engineers compared the police picture with images taken of the jeep for damage assessment and while the cars were identical right up to registration plates, the cover of the spare wheel was different. The evidence of the digital images taken to assess the repairs proved the jeep owner's innocence and the charges were dropped.

The use of image assessment in the motor repair industry is worth around £7.5m per year. There are around 5 million motor accidents in the UK annually.

Since entering widespread use five years ago, the benefits have proved manifold. For the bodyshop, the opportunity to obtain authorisation from their work provider without waiting for an on-site inspection, means the job is processed quicker.

Improved customer service is also important to insurers. Staff engineers' productivity increases and engineers' travel costs are slashed by using imaging technology.

Audatex, with 60% market share, processes an average of 450,000 images each month and earns transaction revenue from the images that accompany each estimate sent by a bodyshop to an insurer.

Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA) group motor engineers manager Trevor Davies is clear about the benefits. The insurer began using digital imaging five years ago, first with BT Information and then, 18 months ago, switching to Audatex, which provides an image on every assessment.

"We can now deal with repairers within hours rather than days," says Davies.

R&SA uses digital imaging in around 60% of inspections. Davies says R&SA is looking to develop its use in other areas of motor claims such as salvage management.

Norwich Union (NU) uses Audatex, but has also developed its own in-house system to receive images from other sources. NU claims operations manager Alan Doughty says increased use of digital imaging has meant being able to potentially authorise repairs within minutes of accidents taking place. "It is now easier to send these images to our claims colleagues," he says.

Both NU and R&SA confirm that they conducted cost benefit analysis and, while unwilling to give figures, say the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.

Claimsplus was one of the first companies to use digital imaging, beginning eight years ago when the technology was still in its infancy. Then, engineers relied on video grabs rather than high-resolution digital imaging - now delivered by the company's QUOTIS system.

Claimsplus head of supplier management Gary Vickery says digital imaging is not designed to replace field engineers.

"There is demand for image-based authorisations and field engineers. Claims costs don't just stop at the actual cost of repair. You have to balance this with the running costs of a large field-based engineer team."

He adds that typically between 25 and 30 estimates can be authorised via images as opposed to between six and seven by inspections.

AMC Accident Management uses digital imaging for its claims management operation that includes call centre and legal services. It has several hundred corporate clients such as Oracle and Marsh.

Operations manager Matthew Briggs says transparency in the claims process is important.

"We use such companies as Audatex to provide independent visual assessment of damage. This is incorporated into our system to provide full cost analysis and claims reporting for our clients," he says.

AMC has also created a website at www.netaccident.com to provide client access to the claims process. Here drivers and fleet management can use the digital images to argue out what actually happened, while corporate users can access a range of claims management information.

Most industry practitioners agree digital imaging is now a mature and widely accepted technology. Even the legal profession, notorious for being slow to accept change, has no problems with digital imaging, according to a spokeswoman for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.

The key developments over the coming years will be a wider application of the technology and a greater role for live digital imaging.