With so much attention paid to electric vehicles it’s easy to overlook current trends in the majority of the traditional U.S. vehicle fleet. The average age of a combustion engine car is 12.5-13 years old. For those who adhere to responsible preventative maintenance schedules and use garage parking, that age doesn’t translate into ruin. But most modern drivers haven’t received preventative automotive maintenance training and even less have private garage parking providing safety from weather, vandalism, and car crashes. Moreover, they may not have known to use the “severe” schedule or realize OEM maintenance schedules still matter for engine function after their cars and trucks are out of warranty. This means it’s wise to anticipate many older cars and trucks arriving in automotive service bays will not be in mint condition and their drivers may not understand the full ramifications of that.
To complicate matters, the National Safety Council reports motor vehicle crashes have risen steadily since 2019.1 In 2021, they found 23,600,000 drivers’ vehicles were involved in a crash, which in part explains the increasing presence of banged-up cars on the road every day. That’s not a reference to disabled cars at the side of the road, but rather damaged cars—including nice, newer cars—driving next to you in traffic with dented doors, spiderwebbed glass, dangling rearview mirrors, dragging mufflers, and/or bumpers held on by duct tape. Parts supply shortages causing price hikes combined with inflation and skyrocketing insurance premiums seem to be motivating drivers to simply live with their injuries, i.e., if the car still moves, they proceed without repairs. Some of them also choose to drive without insurance. According to J.D. Power,2 the number of uninsured drivers has recently doubled in some states as the cost of motorist insurance has gone up.
Protective options for automotive aftermarket service providers under these circumstances work for drivers as well. For first-time customers, establish the last time the vehicle was serviced and what services were done. Did they follow a recommended interval for the vehicle? If not, explain the importance of recommended intervals to maximize the life of the vehicle. If the interval is off by hundreds or thousands of miles and the engine oil is dangerously low or shows signs of sludge, consider either having the driver sign an acknowledgment regarding the risks of extending service intervals or send them to a full repair facility. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to maintaining vehicle engines.
With regard to vehicle exteriors, inventory the condition of cars and trucks prior to service. Videotape or photograph the entire exterior. A driver who complains about a dent post-service may genuinely not recall that it was there when they drove in. Take notes on significant pre-existing exterior damage and consider whether the type of damage involved could impact the automotive system about to be serviced.
The interior of older and/or banged-up vehicles is equally important. Are any malfunction indicator lights illuminated? Do any of the gauges appear to be broken? Do you see any oil or other fluid stains near the gas and brake pedals? What is the vehicle’s mileage? Many automakers don’t list recommended services after 150,000 miles. That doesn’t mean older vehicles stop needing maintenance, but that actual conditions become more important than ever in determining how to proceed.
This brings us to the engine. Take notes on engine condition. For example, are there any leaks, rust, or broken components? Is the antifreeze brown? Is the engine oil black? Is the oil filter stuck? Any such observations should appear on the driver’s invoice and remain on file with the shop. It only takes a few minutes to complete this step. If management or technicians resist, consider providing a digital dictation app with service bay equipment to record what they observe in real time. Many easy dictation options exist ranging from free to inexpensive when paired with smartphones.3 Whatever it takes, get those notes on file. They help both service providers and drivers remember what happened in the event something goes wrong post-service.
Automotive service providers and drivers aren’t adversaries, but average drivers’ lack of automotive expertise and financial stress can create a perfect storm when older, banged-up, and/or underinsured vehicles are involved. Information, communication, and documentation provide the remedy. Safe and happy customers make it all worthwhile. And, as always, check your state automotive repair law to ensure compliance with the latest regulatory requirements.