Leading Article: Lifting the bonnet on mechanical failure

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The Independent Online
THE SURVEY of garage servicing published by Which? yesterday will confirm what most people already know: that many people who run garages are either incompetent or dishonest, or both. There can be no other explanation for the litany of errors and omissions that the Consumers' Association inspectors found when they sent 36 cars in for service incognito. The interesting question is why standards should be so low, when more than 11,000 garages compete for business.

Trading standards departments in local councils are manifestly failing in their duty to protect the consumer. They should perform more unannounced inspections and act more vigorously on the rising tide of complaints - an average of almost 1.7 for every garage per year. Notices might be posted in garage receptions and offices to tell angry customers where to go for satisfaction. But the scale of the problem is too great to be blamed on lax inspection alone.

It is in the nature of car mechanics' business that few customers can tell the difference between a good and a bad job. Barbers, house-painters and journalists, whose lapses can be immediately visible, have no such luxury. The large number of customers who have their servicing bills paid by their employers are often less vigilant than they might be.

The other factor at work is the broader decline in educational standards. You may not need a PhD to repair a car, but you need mechanical knowledge, manual dexterity and a certain problem-solving aptitude for identifying the link between the way a car sounds when it is driven and the reality of what is going on beneath its bonnet. Badly trained, semi-literate, semi-numerate people, of whom too many have been turned out of British schools over the past decade, have little hope of becoming skilled mechanics.

As for the future, the bad news is that cars are continuing to get more complex and electronic, so home servicing is becoming a more remote option for the amateur enthusiast. The good news is that cars are also becoming more reliable and better- made, so many drivers need to visit a garage only once every 12,000 miles. Car manufacturers are belatedly doing their bit to help. So seriously do they take customers' concerns about maintenance, that a growing number are offering guarantees on the new cars they sell - not just money- back-after-14-days-if-not-satisfied, but also proper guarantees under which the manufacturer will make good at its own expense any defects that emerge within the first three (or more) years of a car's life. Unfortunately, such promises come too late for the owners of cars already on the road - or in the garage.