OEM vs. non-OEM repair partsAbout two years ago I was driving my new Honda Fit in the center lane across Florida's Alligator Alley. In the right hand lane ahead of me was a pickup truck hauling a car engine strapped to the back of an old wooden trailer. A metal piece from that engine, which could have been a valve cover, bounced up and out, careened off the blacktop and smashed into my windshield as if an Olympic athlete had thrown a javelin.

The windshield held, but began to crack. Then a small hole appeared that let the wind whistle through. When I reached my destination I called my insurance company, which recommended several repair shops that could replace my windshield. Funny thing: No Honda dealership was mentioned.

"Shouldn't I just go to Honda?" I asked. The claims adjustor hemmed and hawed. He didn't insist that I have the windshield replaced at any of his suggested repair shops, but he kept reciting them during our conversation.

Rain rain go away

Since I was far from home with no previous experience in this kind of situation, I took his recommendation on where to repair my windshield. But when I started to drive north, the once sunny Florida sky opened up and a downpour engulfed me. I turned on my windshield wipers, but instead of swishing back and forth they began to bang and flop because they hadn't been put back in properly.

After being unable to see for several scary miles I got off the interstate, turned around and drove right back to the windshield repair shop to have my wipers reset. And they almost got it right. During a routine oil change at my Honda dealership the mechanic realized that the wiper blades still hadn't been properly reinstalled.

Let this cautionary tale serve as a warning to those who blindly follow their auto insurer's advice. I think that advice is only intended to save your insurer money, not to help you the policyholder. In my case, as in most instances, an Original Equipment Manufacturer, or OEM, part with labor probably costs more. But shouldn't your insurer send you to a local dealership even if it's more money? It's better than being unprepared on an interstate in the middle of a rainstorm or, worse, having another accident.

OEM or aftermarket

The battle between insurer and insured over OEM parts vs. aftermarket, or replacement products, has been waged for years. And the waters have been muddied because parts sold to resellers can be marketed as OEM. From my point of view, if you have a Honda that's been in an accident then your insurer should encourage you to get Honda replacement parts put in by a Honda dealer. And the same is true for a BMW, Chevy or Hyundai.

But there's always the argument as to whether an OEM part is better made than an aftermarket one. Insurers such as Chubb encourage policyholders who've been in auto accidents to use OEM parts; others, like mine, persuade you to use aftermarket from their recommended repair shops. Read the car buff's bible, the Edmunds.com website, and you'll get both sides of the story.

Insurance money talks

Drivers upset with the quality of aftermarket parts have gotten their state legislators to pass laws that allow them to choose where they go for car repairs. But this unnerves insurers because virtually every mechanic will ask if your insurance is paying and if it is, they might ring the cash register a lot more.

Any driver who's been in an accident should think seriously about replacing broken parts with aftermarket ones. A General Accounting Office report to Congress in 2001 found that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's ability to detect and recall defective replacement crash parts was "limited," i.e. driver beware.

The Obama administration recently issued a warning about "counterfeit Chinese airbags" installed as aftermarket parts in many cars. The airbags didn't merely fail to function, but actually "threw shrapnel" at the driver. Other defective Chinese auto parts include engine fuses which could be linked to electrical fires and tires responsible for at least two deaths.

In hindsight, I made the mistake of following my insurer's advice. My replacement windshield is not an OEM and my wiper blades were improperly reinstalled because the mechanic was unfamiliar with them. If there's a next time, at least I'll know better. And you should, too.