American automobiles are significantly safer since Ralph Nader published his landmark 1965 expose, "Unsafe at Any Speed," a crusade for the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While motorists in the United States are surviving tens of thousands of collisions each year, repair costs inflate as quickly as an air bag. As collision repair costs skyrocket, particularly among government-owned vehicles, taxpayers get hit as well.
"Once upon a time, if the repair costs exceeded 75 percent of the expected value of the car, the vehicle would be considered totaled," said Craig Croner, administrative services manager of the Boise city clerk's office. "The trend across the nation, not just in Boise, is that insurance companies say more vehicles should be fixed that weren't normally fixed before."
People's exhibit No. 1 is Boise's growing pile of repair bills for its automotive fleet, which includes more than 1,500 vehicles for public safety, maintenance and administration. The Boise City Council has been asked twice in the past five months to approve an 80 percent increase to pay for bodywork and painting.
A closer inspection of the logs from Harold's Auto Body, the vendor contracted to fix the city's fleet, reveals of 93 repair jobs, 76 involved police vehicles and 40 were deemed accidents. Repair costs ran to $126,818—76 percent of the total 2015 bill of $167,686.
That's significantly more than the $100,000 amount budgeted for 12 months worth of repairs at Harold's Auto Body. In November 2015, Croner, who oversees the city's fleet, told the council it should increase the repair budget to $165,000. Earlier this month, Croner returned to suggest another $15,000 increase.
"The contract comes up for renewal in March, so yes, we're expecting to leave it at the $180,000 level," he said.
Croner was quick to add that the city is diligent about filing insurance claims to recover some of those expenses. A review of the logs indicated 50 of 93 incidents involved claims being filed.
"But the subrogation of some of those claims can take months and months and months. We still have to get the vehicles fixed," said Croner.
While many of the repairs hover around $2,000, a good number of the fixes—particularly involving Boise Police Department vehicles—top $10,000. Public safety vehicles are better made, said city officials, but they cost much more to fix. For example, a February 2015 collision involving three vehicles required nearly $24,000 in repairs. Another incident, in which the left front end of a police vehicle was damaged, required $13,474 in repairs, yet no insurance claim was filed.
"Sometimes it's our fault; sometimes we have an accident," said Croner. "It's important to note that we can't recover money from criminals."
As for the future, Croner said city officials "will keep an eye on that trend. But for now, we're leaving the repair costs at that higher number."