It has been said that Americans have a love affair with the automobile.
This is a misstatement. It is an untruth that rivals such well established falsehoods as, "I mailed your check this morning," and "Just relax. This won't hurt."
The truth is that the love affair long ago degenerated into a love-hate relationship. We love the mobility, convenience and privacy that automobiles gives us. But we hate the price we pay for these advantages.
Money is an important ingredient in that price, but by no means the only factor that irritates auto owners.
The original cost of an auto is high.The cost of running it is high. The cost of parking it is high. The cost of insuring it is soaring into outer space.And the cost of repairing it is absurd.
Television commercials would have you believe that when a lovely chick drives into her authorized dealer's repair facility and sadly says she thinks her engine needs a complete overhaul because it has been making strange noises, Mr. Goodwrench sends her home all smiles. This honest and able mechanic finds that the trouble can be cured with one spark plug or some other inexpensive part.
Mr. Goodwrench is a handsome devil and has a million-dollar personality. However, your government says, in effect, that he is a fictional character. In real life, when you ask your friendly neighborhood auto mechanic to repair your car - especially your engine - you will more often than not pay for work not done, work not done properly, or work that wasn't needed in the first place.
The facts confirmed by this government investigation have long been known to, or suspected by, auto owners. Auto repair complaints have been commonplace for years. Ask any local columnist, any Action Line reporter in the United States, or any auto owner. Better yet, ask Archie Richardson of the Automobile Owners Action Council, a nonprofit agency that helps auto owners who have been ripped off by dealers and repairmen. The AOAC is in the telephone book: 1411 K St. NW, 638-5550.
Automobile complaints follow a pattern: repairs are seldom made at a fair price on the first visit to the shop. Instead, the owner's time is wasted, he doesn't have the use of his car, and the repair bills go on and on.
Example: My car began to refuse to start on damp days. It went into the shop $90 worth. When it came out, it still wouldn't start in wet weather, so it went back in again. And again.
I am now approaching the $300 mark in attempts to repair this one flaw. Mr. Goodwrench still doesn't know what's wrong, and the car still doesn't start in wet weather.
In addition to all these traditional irritations, auto owners have in recent years been beset by new problems. Larger trucks and buses break up street paving. Snow removal techniques generate devastating potholes. Trains, subways and buses run on restricted schedules to keep down operating deficits, and this makes it necessary for many people to use automobiles at a time when gasoline has skyrocketed in price and become difficult or impossible to find. Parking spaces have also become scarcer and more costly.
Meanwhile streets and highways have become crowded with vehicles, many of them driven by undertrained or underskilled people, many by utterly selfish egomaniacs, and all of them by human beings with limited patience. The slower traffic moves, the more likely it is that somebody will lose his cool and risk an accident to gain a few seconds.
If all this isn't enough, motorists must cope with traffic controls that make them wonder whether anybody at City Hall knows what's going on - or cares.
Traffic lights malfunction with dismaying frequency but are seldom repaired with alacrity. At dozens of signals, the motorist doesn't know whether he's faced with a red light or a green one because the lights have been knocked askew and remain that way indefinitely. Lack of synchronization is taken for granted. As Sir Isaac Newton might have pointed out, a traffic signal that is out of synchronization will remain out of synchronization until acted upon by an outside force, just as a body at rest tends to remain at rest instead of busying itself with the repair or synchronization of traffic signals.
A love affair with the automobile, you say? I say baloney. We need automobiles, just as we need dental drills. But that's not to say we love either machine.