Question 1 Raises Issues on “Right to Repair”

By Selin Thomas, Lisa Braun, and Anna Youk
Boston University News Service

Massachusetts voters are questioning the “Right to Repair” initiative which is in some ways a recycling of a House measure that became law in August.

The law requires auto manufacturers to make diagnostic information accessible to consumers and private repair shops. Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation requiring automakers to release diagnostic repair information and would become the first to penalize auto businesses not in accordance with the measure. Legislators across the country are watching this initiative’s outcome to determine its potential on the national scale.

The first of three statewide initiatives in this election, this ballot question has supporters and strong opponents battling to influence voters.

“This seems like an obvious yes,” said Boston car owner Nick Barber.

In favor of giving technicians and consumers equal access to car information, Massachusetts residents began pushing for support of the law in July and succeeded in getting it approved two months later.

To protect what many see as a basic right, supporters have attempted to rally new votes for the ballot question. However, many residents are uninformed about the proposed changes as opponents encourage skipping the question all together.

Concerns about potential security breaches and intellectual property rights have manufacturers strongly opposing the initiative despite its growing support in the private sector.

Opponents of Right to Repair are generally corporate manufacturers, auto dealers and larger auto repair facilities that have the resources to purchase more expensive diagnostic equipment; they want a higher barrier to entry. Automakers are encouraging people to skip the question entirely because the ballot issue will not pass if it garners the less than the 30 percent minimum vote required.

Advocates, though, are trying to reach the voters first by showing stark contrasts between the existing law and the proposed measure.

“We’ve fought for over 12 years nationally…We are advising people to read up on this and maybe set a national precedent,” said Arthur Kinsman, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee.

The measure that stands on the ballot differs from the law in three ways. The definition of ‘vehicles’ covered by the law is broader in the ballot question and includes motorcycles, vans, and commercial vehicles rather than only cars.

Another differentiation in the penalty for not cooperating with the law could prevent certain companies from selling cars in Massachusetts completely.

Finally, the diagnostic information for all vehicles would eventually be delivered through a universal database system.

“It’s been my experience that the repair shops at dealerships charge more than independent shops,” said Barber, “so giving the small shops access to this information would ultimately benefit the consumers by leveling the playing field and increasing competition.”

While proponents of the measure are encouraging voters to take a stand on Question 1, uncertainties about its effect on businesses, security, and consumers linger.

“I don’t think it’s a loss for me to pay a few hundred dollars more to repair my car and keep all my information confidential,” said Christine Yun of Boston.

Some police departments within the state are discouraging the legislation in fear of revealing proprietary systems that could make it easier for car thieves to compromise security.

However, the Right to Repair Committee defends its provisions against this.

“Any key codes or security related codes must be delivered through a secure system, one that has already been approved by automakers and law enforcement agencies,” Kinsman said.

On its website, the Right to Repair initiative boasts that the average savings for a consumer would range from $300 to $500 per person per year. Similarly, the law claims to protect 32,000 jobs in the Massachusetts independent repair industry by increasing technician employment and the growth of repair centers.

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