Drivers who file an auto insurance claim expect to be made whole. But many insurance companies today use generic, or "aftermarket," car parts -- instead of parts made by the original equipment manufacturer -- to repair vehicles.
Independent manufacturers make aftermarket parts. They include two general types:
- Cosmetic parts. Also known as "crash parts," these are parts that make a car distinctive in its appearance, but they don't play a key role in keeping drivers safe. They include bumper covers, fenders, quarter panels and door skins.
- Structural parts. These are the parts that make up the bulk of the automobile, and they keep drivers and passengers safe. They include things such as radiator supports or bumper bars.
Critics contend that aftermarket parts may be dangerous, or may cause a drop in the car's value. But proponents say the use of aftermarket parts keeps auto insurance costs lower for policyholders.
Aftermarket parts: Big savings, but at what cost?
Aftermarket parts came onto the scene in 1970, when independent manufacturers in the United States and other countries first began making sheet-metal replacements for hoods, fenders and doors.
As the availability of aftermarket parts increased over the years, the competition brought prices of replacement parts down substantially, proponents say.
"Generic parts cost 26 to 50 percent less than original manufacturer parts, and they often have longer warranties," says Lynne McChristian,
Consumers saved $2.2 billion in insurance costs in 2010 thanks to aftermarket parts, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
While consumers rack up savings, critics charge that aftermarket parts may put drivers in serious danger.
In February, CNN reported that some auto insurance companies were strong-arming auto repair shops into using cheap -- and possibly dangerous -- parts.
Soon after the report aired, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked the Justice Department to start an investigation into auto repairs throughout the nation.
In addition, more than 500 auto repair facilities in 36 states have banded together to file a lawsuit against State Farm, Allstate, GEICO, Progressive and other major insurers, charging that the companies unfairly steer customers toward repair shops willing to use allegedly substandard parts and to keep overall costs at or below thresholds demanded by the insurers.
McChristian and Rader say they’re unaware of any significant failures of aftermarket parts. But critics insist they occur.
In March, two teens were killed in a crash in Oregon that some blamed on an aftermarket bumper. However, reports say a state trooper insisted the bumper wasn’t responsible for the accident.
Critics also say a car repaired with aftermarket parts is worth less money at resale time than a car repaired with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts.
Should you worry about the safety of aftermarket parts?
Proponents of aftermarket parts say concerns are overblown.
"No auto insurer wants to put an unsafe car on the road," McChristian says.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conducted crash tests to gauge the safety of aftermarket parts.
It found that for almost all parts tested, there was no difference in safety between parts created by original equipment manufacturers and those created by aftermarket suppliers.
However, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader says policyholders should make a distinction between cosmetic parts and structural parts.
"Consumers shouldn't worry about cosmetic parts," he says. "These parts play no role in crash protection."
Aftermarket structural parts need to be viewed with more caution, Rader says, since the quality of such parts is crucial to keeping drivers safe. You can do this by checking that the parts have been approved by the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA).
CAPA is an independent nonprofit that tests replacement crash parts. It certifies aftermarket parts that fit, perform and last to the same specifications as the original parts.
The parts you want -- and the price you'll pay
When shopping for auto insurance, it's important to ask which type of part your insurer uses in repairs.
"Some auto insurance companies offer their policyholders a choice between generic and OEM parts," McChristian says.
Other insurers may specify that only OEM parts must be used for all repairs, or may require them for newer cars only, McChristian says.
Chubb Insurance has used OEM parts for its repairs for about two decades, according to Bill Crowley, Chubb worldwide automobile claim manager.
"Many of our customers own and drive luxury and other high-end vehicles,"
However, insurers who insist on using OEM equipment for most or all repairs may charge more expensive premiums than what you'd be charged by an insurer that uses aftermarket parts.
In many states, auto body shops are required to disclose whether they'll use aftermarket parts in estimates that they prepare for customers.
If your insurer typically uses aftermarket parts, you can override that decision and insist on OEM parts to repair your car, McChristian says.
However, prepare to open your wallet. Most insurers will respond to such a request by asking you to pay the difference between the cost of an aftermarket part and an OEM part.