By Mike Antich Accident management costs are rising due to the cost of replacing electronics, increased parts prices, new safety devices, and increased cost of materials, such as steel and plastic. While repair costs are increasing, fleets are resorting to new ways to control those costs and are keeping a tight reign on repair expenses.
"The two most prevalent overall trends in our industry are expanding repair parameters to reduce repair costs, and bundling accident management with the company's driver safety program," said Vincent Brigidi, director of commercial operations, CEI.
"Costs are definitely escalating. Electronics are out of control. Vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with 10 to 15 different computers on a car, for things such as engine control, transmission control, the supplemental restraint system, fuel management system, etc. When they're affected, the more complicated and expensive the repairs become," said Greg Neuman, quality control supervisor, CEI.
More vehicles are built with high-strength, low-alloy steel, designed to crumple around the passenger compartment in a collision. "As a result, the interior panels that previously could be repaired often no longer can be and must be replaced, which is more expensive," added Neuman.
Increasingly, aluminum and fiberglass are being used in vehicle parts. These lighter-weight, more fuel-efficient materials are more expensive to repair and must be replaced more often than steel parts. Aluminum is used for exterior parts and internally for such components as engine blocks, transmission cases, and structural supports. However, aluminum is brittle and lacks the material memory of steel.
"We're seeing more fiberglass in the hoods of vans and SUVs," said Neuman. "Parts costs are rising. The price of steel and fuel for delivery is rising. Parts manufacturers and distributors are passing along these costs."
With oil prices continually climbing, companies are being forced to raise prices and institute surcharges, passing on business cost increases to customers.
"We pay for it in manufacturing, shipping, travel, food, etc. The sad part in big business, when consumers are hoping for price reductions, corporations believe we have no choice. Therefore, price increases will stay until new competition forces price reductions," said Bob Martines, president/CEO, Corporate Claims Management, Inc. (CCM).
"From my perspective, expenditures are flat. Our average severity in 2007 was $1,907 versus $1,870 in 2006, up less than 2 percent year-over-year," said John Wolford, senior manager of provider and network services, CEI.
Hybrids are more expensive to repair, and CEI now authorizes hundreds of hybrid vehicle repairs compared to few, if any, three years ago. An additional $1,000-$5,000 in expense is standard for hybrid vehicle repair for similar-incident repairs on traditional gas-powered vehicles.
Eliot Bensel, director, vehicle accident services for PHH Arval reports, "Our statistics show bent metal costs increased by 2 percent from 2006-2007." The increase was primarily driven by new technologies built into today's cars that cost more to repair.
Bensel noted rising parts expense. "Cost of parts continues to escalate due to the increase in technology that trickles down to the basic fleet vehicle, such as HID headlights and supplemental restraint systems, including airbags and occupant safety devices," he said.
Additionally, specialized repair procedures to return vehicles to pre-loss condition continue to drive costs upward.
"We're also seeing more component replacement rather than repair. That's partly for safety reasons, but also because manufacturers are simply not making as many component parts available for repairs forcing increased assemble replacement," said Bensel.
"The most recent studies clearly show collisions and severe evasive actions (near misses) are strongly attributable to driver distractions and inattentiveness," said David Vance, director of safety services, Fleet Response.
"Upgraded vehicular technologies for better handling and evasive controls have evidenced improvement in the near misses (vehicle versus vehicle), but the 'ran off the road,' 'rollover,' and 'struck fixed/stationary object' incidents are undoubtedly increasing. If you or I can be 'distracted' by watching other drivers perform their handling of vehicles, we are also subject to potential accidents," said Vance.
Crash incidents occurring on personal time for fleets that permit personal use have also risen. Driving this uptick may be increasing driver use of the company vehicle and fuel program during a time of record prices at the pump, according to Brigidi.
Fewer Cosmetic Repairs Seen
CCM has witnessed slight changes on the client side. "Many of our clients have no choice but to try and keep their drivers on the road as efficiently as possible. Regarding accident costs, we are seeing fewer cosmetic repairs, especially in service clients. Any repair involving safety-related items are 'business as usual.' We have seen more utilization of aftermarket and used parts," said Martines of CCM.
Fleets are trying to reduce accident management costs by declining some of cosmetic repairs they had authorized previously, agreed Neuman of CEI.
"Many fleets are being more aggressive with reducing the types of repairs they make. As a result, we are having more conversations with fleets about which repairs can be safely left undone and which are necessary to restore the safety profile of the vehicle. Fleets are increasingly relying on our expertise to point out the difference," said Wolford of CEI. "Paintless dent repair (PDR) has become mainstream as a way to reduce repair costs. Several years ago, perhaps only 25 percent of our clients would authorize PDR. Now I would say it's about 75 percent."
"The fact that the increase in repair expenditures is actually slight does not reflect the increasing complexities we are seeing in vehicles and repairs," said CEI's Brigidi. "To control costs, we have widened repair parameters with many customers in our portfolio to include use of recycled and aftermarket parts, PDR, and avoidance of minor repairs that do not affect the safe operation of the vehicle."
Another factor CCM has experienced in the current stagnant U.S. economy is that companies are not freeing up money for vehicle acquisitions, choosing instead pay for repair costs most often dramatically lower than the expense of a new vehicle.
Hybrid Repairs More Costly
The growing fleet incorporation of hybrid and other alternative-powered vehicles is another factor in rising accident management costs. Alternate-fuel vehicles present unique repair challenges. Specialized and often unfamiliar repair methods must be used when handling driveline, suspension, and steering components of these vehicles. Repairs to hybrid electrical systems, in particular, have special handling procedures.
Hybrid vehicle repairs can be much more expensive if a crash impacts vulnerable areas — the left front location of the power converter and cooling system, and the rear where the batteries are stored. "Hybrid batteries cost between $2,900 and as much as $6,000 to replace," reported Neuman.
Often-complex hybrid vehicle repairs require expertise and experience both at the shop and accident management company level, according to Brigidi.
"Accident management has become much more than management of the repair process. Increasingly, customers are recognizing the power of data captured during the accident reporting process, and how much more powerful that data can become when combined with additional inputs such as driving habits, demographics, and MVR data," said Brigidi.
"An accident management provider has to be as good at capturing accurate data and skilled in the useful 'crunching' of that data as it is at managing the costs of a repair," he added.
"The executive review process of delivering not only cost data, but data surrounding accidents themselves has allowed us to deliver savings to customers through changes and additions to their driver safety policies, the effective delivery of online and behind-the-wheel training, adjustments to their selectors, and several other facets of the fleet program. Savings through prevention have proven five to 10 times more than savings extracted through the repair process," said Brigidi.
"By bundling accident and safety programs with a provider that has scale and experience in managing repair and rental costs while delivering on subrogation opportunities, and in delivering driver safety solutions efficiently and effectively allows for the extraction of savings from both the management of the incident and the prevention of future incidents," said Brigidi.
Proactive Emphasis Grows
Gaining momentum among fleets, proactive accident management recognizes the value of investing in accident prevention rather than paying liability costs.
"Many companies are now focusing on accident prevention, taking a very aggressive posture for several reasons, including the repair cost factor, downtime, loss of revenue and profits, legal entanglements, and injuries, to highlight just a few," said Martines of CCM.
In addition, said Martines, fewer accidents mean fewer injuries, and a safer driving force. "Drivers work more efficiently and ultimately drive up company revenues. Basically, spend a little to save a lot and produce more revenues. Any fleet, risk, or safety manager would be pleased to accomplish this," he said.
Pam Walinski, vice president, PHH Vehicle Accident Services, agreed. "The latest trends continue to be focused on the importance of driver safety and reducing collisions. Even greater emphasis is being placed on reinforcing the importance of road safety and identification of personal driving behaviors that contribute to accidents."
PHH research indicates a growing awareness among fleet, safety, and risk managers that driver training alone has a negligible long-term impact on reducing accident occurrence. The same research reveals increased acknowledgement that the driver's manager plays a key role in decreasing crash incidents. A growing number of companies understand sustained reduction in crashes can only be achieved through long-term efforts in creating a culture of driver safety.
Lynn Berberich, VP, risk and safety at PHH noted, "Another trend is a focus on more than just drivers in company-provided vehicles, recognizing that corporate liability extends to anyone driving for work purposes even if it's in their own personal cars. We see more companies running MVRs annually on more than just their fleet drivers and using that data as criteria for driving on company business."
More safety-conscious and increasingly interested in preventing collisions, fleets are now scrutinizing accident reports more carefully to evaluate driver behavior. For example, a driver claims his vehicle was hit while parked, or he hit a deer, but the damage isn't consistent with that explanation.
"Fleets are asking us more often to provide this kind of analysis because they want to get a better handle on identifying higher-risk drivers to reduce accident rates," said Neuman.
Fleet use of GPS, particularly portable units, is rising as well, said Wolford. "I'm not sure what that means. Some think they make the driver safer; others use it for more efficient route planning and reducing miles by helping drivers avoid getting lost."
Loss Decisions Impacted
CEI is beginning to spot a reversal of the recent trend in declaring vehicles total losses. Instead, more fleets appear inclined to keep vehicles in service than replace them.
"Typically, fleets declare a vehicle a total loss when the repairs equal 50-60 percent of market value. Now we're seeing fleets push that, in some cases, to as much as 65 percent. This appears another way to control fleet costs because new vehicles are becoming more expensive," agreed CEI's Wolford and Neuman.
Brigidi also noted a slight decline in the incidence of total losses due to extended fleet vehicle life.
Vehicle replacement costs and after market upfitting now influence the decision-making process more than in recent years. While mileage will always remain a factor, the cost of client-specific "accessories" impacts the "fix-or-salvage" decision.
"Once aftermarket parts are factored into a repair price, the average cost increases significantly," noted Martines. "We have seen an increase in clients factoring the possibility of subrogation returns prior to making a decision on fix-versus-total loss."
However, he added, CCM "cannot wholeheartedly endorse this philosophy for several reasons. Underinsured, uninsured, policy limitations, shared liability (comparative negligence), and irresponsible regional high-risk insurance providers all contribute to the reasons why subrogation should not factor in the repair/total loss decision process. Insurers have notoriously neglected reimbursing fleet users and we see no end in sight."
The problem is not limited to less-reputable insurers, said Martines. "Many high-profile insurers are simply trying to pay what they deem is fair by adjusting prices long after repairs have been completed, paying only a specific number of rental days or downtime and nothing more. Clients now realize the imbalance in the process and are asking for more help to obtain additional funds."
PHH's Berberich concluded, "As more environmental health and safety and risk departments get involved in driver safety, the focus is less on bent metal and rental costs and more on the total cost of accidents including workers compensation, liability, lost productivity, service, and sales."
Walinski concludes, "With the rising cost to repair a vehicle, it's even more important to ensure accident management providers are pursuing every single dollar through subrogation. This includes not only bent metal and rental costs, but additional opportunities to pursue diminished value, loss of use, and recovery through arbitration forums. Through an effective subrogation recovery process, companies could expect to receive 40 percent of their total accident costs returned to their bottom line.
One anticipated trend is more government involvement in driver safety prompted by new corporate manslaughter legislation in the UK that extends a corporation's responsibility for people driving on company business. The new law clearly outlines the components that must be in place for a company to meet the criteria of effectively evaluating and training drivers, Berberich reported.
"It also extends the penalties that can be imposed. It is expected that this government focus on driver safety will extend to all the EU countries and may eventually cross the Atlantic to North America," said Berberich.