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Lines drawn on auto care law

Right to Repair foes say thefts will rise; backers dispute claim

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / May 21, 2011

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Opponents of legislation that would give independent auto mechanics in Massachusetts access to repair data and diagnostic codes now available only to dealerships say the law would cause more cars to be stolen and increase the cost of insurance, which backers of the bill say are scare tactics.

The Massachusetts Auto Coalition, a group of automobile industry organizations that opposes the legislation, makes the charges in a 30-second radio commercial airing on Boston-area stations. The ads are being paid for by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry association based in Washington that is part of the Massachusetts coalition.

The spots begin with the blare of a car alarm, followed by an announcer saying, “That’s not just the sound of your car’s antitheft system, it’s the sound of a sophisticated thief stealing your car. He got easy access to your car’s computer security codes thanks to the so-called Right to Repair bill.’’

Proponents of the proposal said the ad is an attempt to frighten drivers by using false information.

“The whole idea of this [law] is that franchise and independent repair shops have a level playing field,’’ said Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition, a group of independent mechanics and auto parts manufacturers. The notion that giving auto data and computer codes to repair shops will lead to an increase in car thefts “is ludicrous,’’ he said.

Kinsman cited a 2010 letter from the Massachusetts Insurance Federation, a trade association, that said Right to Repair legislation will give consumers more choice over where they have their cars repaired and serviced, increasing competition in the industry.

But opponents say they worry that vehicle security will be compromised. Some of them cite the National Insurance Crime Bureau — an Illinois nonprofit that partners with law enforcement officials and insurers to track and prosecute insurance crime — which has said releasing diagnostic codes would aid thieves.

“The problem with Right to Repair is that it places no limits on making this information available to anyone,’’ said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Auto Coalition, which has support from some independent mechanics. That could lead to more criminals using the data, he added.

“When auto theft goes up, insurance rates go up,’’ Gage said. “This is a pocketbook issue, and we want Massachusetts families to be aware.’’

The legislation stalled in the House of Representatives last year and since January has been with the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. A hearing is scheduled for next month, but it is unclear when legislators might vote on the issue.

Other states have unsuccessfully attempted to enact similar Right to Repair bills, including New Jersey, where an effort stalled a couple of years ago.

In Massachusetts, both sides say they are stepping up their campaign efforts in advance of next month’s hearing.

“We’re going to work three times harder to pass this, and we think it’s going to happen,’’ said Kinsman, who called the auto industry a “formidable opponent.’’

But Gage said backers of the legislation shouldn’t be viewed as underdogs. “This is big guy versus big guy,’’ he said. “Our goal is to be a little bit more effective in how we explain all of the unintended consequences if this bill were to be passed.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.