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Senate backs sharing auto repair data

Carmakers oppose bill forcing them to work with independents

Tony Silva, service manager at Direct Tire in Watertown, conducted tests on an automobile early this year. Tony Silva, service manager at Direct Tire in Watertown, conducted tests on an automobile early this year. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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Auto manufacturers felt a bump in the road yesterday when the Senate voted in favor of a bill affirming that consumers should be able to choose where to have their cars repaired — at an independent mechanic or at a dealership.

The proposal, which has been fiercely contested by carmakers, requires them to offer independent mechanics the same car repair and diagnostic information given to dealership mechanics. If the bill passes, Massachusetts would be the first state in the country to enact such a law.

The Senate approved the bill in an informal session yesterday morning. No one spoke in opposition to the measure, which will now be considered by a House subcommittee to determine whether it will go to a vote before the end of July.

Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition, which includes parts makers and mechanics, called the vote a victory.

“Consumers pay a lot of money for their cars, and they should be able to get them fixed where they want,’’ he said. “There shouldn’t be restrictions as to where you get your car fixed depending on the availability of information.’’

For years, independent mechanics have complained that repair information from auto manufacturers was either inaccessible or offered at exorbitant prices. Their inability to make some repairs also creates a hassle for consumers, who are forced to use more costly dealership mechanics, even for small fixes if they require special technology, like turning off a “check engine’’ light.

Under the proposal, manufacturers would be required to sell the diagnostic codes and scan tools that they now offer to authorized dealerships to independent repair shops “at a non-discriminatory price.’’ The bill requires manufacturers to give that information to repair shops as well as vehicle owners. However, auto manufacturers have argued that the bill would force them to offer proprietary secrets that could benefit their competition — generic parts manufacturers.

Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said companies like Auto Zone and Carquest have backed the bill because they can use it to get information about parts without having to pay for their own research and development. The alliance has also rallied the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which represents US auto parts workers, and unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to oppose the bill and put additional pressure on legislators to defeat it.

“We’re disappointed, despite all the opposition, that the Senate still passed the legislation,’’ Territo said. “We look forward to moving this battle to the House.’’

The debate has been a costly one. According to the secretary of state’s office, both sides have spent more than $600,000 on lobbying efforts from 2006 through 2009. Expenditures for 2010 have not yet been reported. Former Senate president Robert E. Travaglini, now a lobbyist, has been one of the bill’s influential advocates.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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