B.C. red tape could close nearly half of auto windshield outlets, say firms

Automobile windshield shops across British Columbia say they are being driven out of business by a government program which imposes unreasonable costs and needless bureaucracy.

Industry officials say dozens of automotive glass shops will close in the next year unless significant changes are made to the Insurance Corporation of B.C. program.Called Glass Express, the program eliminates the need for accident victims to go to an ICBC claims centre and sets standards for glass shops, including washroom cleanliness, opening hours, technician skills and signage.ICBC considers the program a success because it cuts red tape for drivers and saves the corporation money. But those in the auto glass industry call it a business killer.

"It has been a nightmare for business," says John Preissl of the Auto Glass Survival Coalition. "We're going to lose 40 to 45 per cent of the glass shops in the next year unless something changes."

While replacing a windshield takes the same amount of time as it always did, the required ICBC paperwork can add anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes to a job -- costly time for businesses.

Some shops have had to hire full-time employees just to keep up with the paperwork.

Industry officials are particularly incensed because it was the B.C. Liberals, while in Opposition, who helped kill a previous program that attempted to regulate paint colours and toilet paper supplies in glass and auto body shops. The Liberals promised to reduce the amount of red tape faced by businesses.

Shops have to fill out special forms, take digital photographs and store specific vehicle information. At any time, ICBC auditors can check the businesses books to ensure the deductibles were paid and the proper supplies were purchased and installed.

"It's worse now for these glass shops than it was under the NDP," says Preissl, who represents more than 140 auto glass shops. "It's unbelievable that this supposedly business-friendly government has one of the worst glass repair programs in North America."

Although the program is voluntary, glass shop owners say their ICBC business would dry up entirely if they weren't on the accreditation program.

Another industry group, the United Auto Trades Association, is equally critical. "Businesses are collapsing, people are being put out of work," said United spokesman Mark Metzner, a former ICBC employee. "It's an ugly situation."

Many business owners refuse to publicly criticize the program, fearing reprisals from ICBC. Privately, they complain about the additional paperwork, unreasonable customer delays, slow service from ICBC and restrictive rules around advertising.

The Glass Express program began about a year ago with the intention of serving customers better. Until its inception, customers with broken windshields had to go to ICBC claim centres before taking their vehicles to glass repair shops.

Under the program, customers with broken glass can go straight to accredited shops for their repairs, skipping the ICBC claim centre -- an initiative which saves the Crown corporation an undisclosed amount.

"There is great support for this from our customers. We've got a lot of good feedback on it," said Dave Mitchell, ICBC's senior manager of material damage services.

To reduce the huge costs associated with broken windshields, ICBC doubled the deductibles that must be paid by drivers. Starting this year, deductibles for broken auto glass went to $200 from $100. The result was the virtual elimination of windshield repairs -- which cost ICBC $2.3 million in 2001 -- and an expected decrease in replacements.

In 2002, about 181,200 windshields were replaced costing ICBC $76 million.

ICBC officials believe some of the griping about the Glass Express program is the product of a significant drop in business as a result of the deductible changes.

"There are a heck of a lot of glass shops out there vying for less work than there used to be," Mitchell said. "What that tends to do is really raise the hackles of individuals that aren't getting the same volume they are used to. I admit it is a difficult situation for a businessman out there because a lot of their market has been taken away."

Of the 549 glass shops in British Columbia, fewer than half -- 263 -- are on the program.

Smaller shops complain the program is skewed in favour of large companies. For example, companies must have a mobile glass repair truck in order to be accredited as a Glass Express shop. That's a huge cost for a small business.

Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who was recently handed responsibility for ICBC, says he has heard plenty of criticism of the program -- including allegations that one company has been fraudulently absorbing the deductibles customers are required to pay. Those allegation, Coleman said, are being fully investigated by ICBC.

Although Coleman said it is too early to determine whether the program is a success, he said the program will be reviewed and the criticisms addressed.

The Glass Express problems are the latest in ICBC's frustrating efforts to regulate the auto glass industry.

In 1999 and 2000, the Liberals criticized two accreditation programs which attempted to regulate nearly everything in glass- and auto-body shops including the amount of toilet paper and hand soap in washrooms, paint colours and landscaping.

600450 B.C. red tape could close nearly half of auto windshield outlets, say firms glassonweb.com

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