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Gee-whiz safety tech comes with holy-cow cost for car repairs

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FARGO - Cars are hitting the market with a dizzying array of high-tech options.

Adaptive cruise control, emergency braking, blind spot and lane departure warning, backup and 360-degree viewing systems, all thanks to sophisticated cameras, and ultrasonic and radar sensors.

Newer vehicles have a futuristic “gee-whiz” feeling of comfort and safety, but when it comes to repairs, owners and insurance companies are learning they have a holy-cow cost.

Research by AAA indicates that even minor collisions to Advanced Driver Assistance Systems hidden behind windshields, bumpers and door mirrors can create major repair bills.

Repairs for a minor front or rear collision on a car with advanced systems can easily hit $5,300, more than twice the cost for a vehicle without those systems.

At Corwin Collision Center, General Manager Victor Peterson says the new technologies offer more safety, but the repair costs are taking once-repairable vehicles off the road.

“I’ve seen a deer hit a vehicle where all the airbags went off and that totaled the car,” Peterson said Tuesday, Oct. 30. “We see more and more nice cars getting totaled out.”

Radar, ultrasonic or camera sensors can cost hundreds of dollars apiece. If they need programming, add another $100 to $150 apiece to the bill to get that done correctly, Peterson said. Replacing new windshields means replacing and reprogramming cameras. Bumpers are now often replaced as a unit, because paint can’t be too thick over sensors.

All of that requires highly trained technicians, which also has a price tag, Peterson said.

At Fargo’s Finest Auto Body, manager and estimator Mike Geir said some new sensors calibrate themselves, but others need to be programmed with special computers. In some cases, that technology is only available to car dealers.

“A lot of that stuff is ridiculously priced,” Geir said. “If we can’t program (a sensor) in house, we take it where it needs to be programmed. In some cases, it’s Minneapolis.”

Parts prices in general have exacerbated the rise in repair costs, Geir said.

“It’s not uncommon to have a $1,000 hood on a common car,” Geir said.

A headlight package for a Porsche was an eye-popper, he said.

“I put one in the other day and the headlight was $3,700,” Geir said.

AAA estimates these additions to a typical bill, beyond bodywork:

  • Front radar sensors used with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, $900 to $1,300.

  • Rear radar for blind spot monitoring and cross traffic alerts, $850 to $2,050.

  • Front cameras for automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keeping systems (not including the cost of a replacement windshield), $850 to $1,900.

  • Front, side mirror or rear camera sensors for around-view systems, $500 to $1,100.

  • Front or rear ultrasonic sensors for parking assist systems, $500 to $1,300.

Those added costs, of course, have jacked up insurance claims.

“We definitely are seeing higher repair claims coming across. A lot of people call in and say they just had a small fender bender … and it shouldn’t cost that much,” said Jorin Johnson, owner and agent with Fargo’s Superior Insurance Agency.

They might try to take the ding into a repair shop, figuring they’ll pick up the tab to avoid making a claim, and “they get sticker shock,” Johnson said.

Johnson said a fellow agent had two minor parking lot scrapes.

“Two times, people have barely touched his back fender” and both times the cost was “well north of $1,500. … One was $2,200.”

Windshield replacements used to be $200 to $300. “Now they are routinely above $1,000.”

Johnson now recommends buying full glass replacement coverage.

Eric Duhigg, who owns a Country Financial agency in south Fargo, also says that “the technology is great” at reducing accidents.

“But on the other hand, when we do have a collision, instead of $1,000 or $2,000 for a bumper, we have multiple thousands of dollars” for the bumper and sensors, Duhigg said. “The price of an average fender bender has gone from a few thousand dollars to $5,000 or $10,000.”

The rising cost of vehicles has also increased the cost of car parts.

Chevy Suburbans 10 years ago were $40,000. Now they can cost $80,000 or more, Duhigg said

With a loss, “there can be 100 percent more payout,” Duhigg said.

What surprises him is that North Dakota only requires a vehicle owner to have a minimum of $25,000 in coverage for damage to another person’s property per accident, and Minnesota even less, at $10,000 for damage to another person’s property, Duhigg said.

That means drivers could end up paying out of their own pockets for an accident claim that runs higher, he said.

“That’s one of the big things I’m counseling my clients, just because the state” only requires that, “doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing” to carry only that much coverage, Duhigg said.

Still, it’s generally agreed that the high-tech safety packages are much more of a safety plus than a budget bust.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute: forward collision warning decreases front to rear crashes 27 percent and reduces injuries in those crashes by 20 percent; forward collision warning plus autobrake reduces front to rear crashes 50 percent and reduces injuries by 56 percent; lane departure warning reduces crashes by 11 percent and injuries from those crashes by 21 percent; blind spot detection cuts lane-change crashes by 14 percent; rear automatic braking and rearview cameras cut backing crashes by 62 percent and 17 percent, respectively; and rear cross-traffic alert reduces backing crashes by 22 percent.

“The new vehicles are beeping and vibrating the seat, saying you are getting close to something. I used to get a lot of people who crunched their vehicles into concrete barrier poles (while backing up). I haven’t seen one of those in years,” Johnson said.

“There is a lot of good with the new safety features. They do prevent a lot of accidents,” he said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including K-12 education, Fargo city government, criminal justice, and military affairs. He is currently one of The Forum's business reporters.

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