The COVID-19 pandemic has halted nearly every aspect of life, but in most states, essential businesses are still open to serve customers. Auto body repair shops and automotive service providers fall into this category.
However, even though these businesses are open, you’re probably still worried about potentially being exposed to the virus. Rather than skip much-needed repairs or maintenance, here’s what you need to know about maintaining your vehicle during this time.
How to handle car maintenance
Even if you only drive your car to and from the grocery store, it’s crucial to make sure that it’s safe to drive once you hit the road again for longer trips.
When a car sits for too long, it can cause performance, and sometimes, safety issues. Brake rotors can become rusty. Flat spots can develop on tires that make them more rigid and create a bumpier ride. Your battery also could die if you leave your car parked for too long.
Here are a few preventive maintenance measures you can do at home:
● Drive your car at least once a week. This will keep the battery charged and prevent flat spots on your tires.
● Make sure your tires are inflated.
● Change your wiper blades when necessary.
These are small things, but every little bit may help to delay bigger maintenance issues down the road.
Not every minor issue or unusual noise demands a trip to the mechanic.
“Given that we’re all driving less, routine maintenance, such as oil changes and various inspections, can wait until things settle down,” says Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
It’s important to prioritize safety-related repairs, Gillis says.
“While we are driving less, people need to be prepared for an emergency trip,” he says. “Anything that impacts the drivability or safety of the vehicle should be repaired. This includes serious transmission problems, brakes and steering issues.”
If you experience one of these issues and need to take your car in for repairs, there are several things you — and your auto shop — can do to stay safe.
Options for car maintenance
Repair shops or service providers should strictly follow social distancing guidelines. As some states ease restrictions or let stay-at-home orders expire, this is especially critical for you and your family to stay safe.
“Shops need to set up operations so that social distancing is a priority,” Gillis says.
That means trying to limit physical contact as much as possible and staying at least six feet away from other customers. Per the CDC’s recommended guidelines, wear a cloth face mask when out in public. Studies have shown that people who are asymptomatic are highly contagious, so sticking to this practice can protect you and others.
But Gillis says there’s an even safer option.
“Picking up and dropping off customer vehicles offers consumers the best protection. When this is not possible, shops should schedule pick-ups and drop-offs at the shop to reduce consumer exposure to other customers and to reduce waiting times,” he says.
“For drop-offs, the facility should be set up to enable customers to step away from the vehicle while they describe problems from a distance and attendants move the vehicle for diagnosis. When customers call for an appointment, the facility should obtain all the information needed from the customer in order to reduce their time at the facility. ‘While you wait’ repairs should be discouraged,” Gillis says.
He adds that before you go to pick up your vehicle, your mechanic should complete all the necessary paperwork. Doing so will reduce your time in the shop. They also should disinfect your car before you pick it up. However, even if they do, you should carefully wipe down knobs, the steering wheel, dashboard, doors and seats before you drive away, as an extra precaution.
Gillis also says that “customers should be advised to carefully determine if a repair was properly done on their own time after leaving the shop or getting their car dropped off at home. Generous ‘re-dos’ should be offered if the consumer believes the repair is not sufficient. This compensates for the typical advice that consumers should ‘test out’ the repair before leaving the shop in normal situations.”
Many companies already are enacting several of these measures:
● Pep Boys is offering “touchless drop-offs” where customers can make an appointment online, park their car at a local Pep Boys, place the keys into an envelope with their name and phone number and leave it in a drop box outside the building.
● Even local mom and pop shops are offering innovative customer service to maintain social distancing. One San Antonio auto repair shop now offers pick-up and drop-off services for customers’ cars to and from their home or essential business — no physical contact required.
How to handle car insurance
Several auto insurance companies, including State Farm — the country’s largest auto insurer — are offering discounts, premium reductions and credits to consumers.
“Many insurers are offering refunds and reductions on premiums due to the fact that there are fewer cars on the road. With less people driving, there will be fewer accidents and therefore, fewer claims. This directly allows insurance companies to discount or return a portion of premiums,” says Kelly Fogarty, head of insurance at Branch Insurance.
In many cases, insurers will automatically apply credits and reductions to your accounts. However, it also doesn’t hurt to reach out to your auto insurer to get more details about what they’re offering and how it will affect how much you pay for a policy going forward.
However, with record unemployment, many people still may not be able to afford their premiums. Fogarty says if this is the case for your family, call your insurance company as soon as possible to work out a plan.
“Many states have issued bulletins mandating or suggesting that insurance companies not cancel policies due to non-payment right now and instead work with their customers to set up a payment plan moving forward,” she says.
What you shouldn’t do is cancel your policy, even if you’re not driving your vehicle as frequently or at all. If you were to get into an accident while making a quick trip to the store or if your vehicle experiences fire or wind damage, going without coverage could mean more expensive vehicle repair or replacement bills.
Most states also require a minimum amount of liability coverage. If you have a car loan, most lenders require comprehensive coverage. It’s generally not a good idea to forgo auto insurance, even if you’re having financial difficulties.
“Unfortunately, bad things happen when we least expect it. So, while you may be driving fewer miles, you want to make sure yourself, those closest to you and your possessions are always protected,” Fogarty says. “You may find a short-term cost-saver quickly turns into a long-term expense.”
To maintain your coverage in these unprecedented times, Gillis says the most important thing is to be proactive.
“If you can’t make your payments, contact your company before your bills are due to determine if they will offer any forbearance during the crisis,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen is to have your company cancel your coverage due to non-payments. Good companies will generally make some arrangements, at least in the short term, but don’t delay in getting in touch with them.