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64 Million U.S. Car Owners Can’t Afford Surprise Repairs: AAA Study

USAToday  |  Mark Grandstaff

Nearly one-in-three American motorists cannot pay for vehicle repairs without taking on debt, according to a new study from AAA.

Friends examining broken down car on sunny day

The study estimates 64 million drivers could not pay out-of-pocket for an average repair bill of $500 to $600. There are about 210 million licensed motorists in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.  About 76% of men said they could afford the expense, while only 62% of women could do the same.

“We were a little shocked at the results,” said Michael Calkins, AAA manager of technical services. “That one-third of American drivers couldn’t afford the cost of a $500 auto repair is a little concerning.”

AAA suggests motorists adhere to a scrupulous vehicle maintenance schedule and set aside $50 a month to build a fund for maintenance and unexpected repairs. But some motorists don’t – or can’t. About one-third of U.S. drivers delay or skip recommended car maintenance, Calkins said, a possible lingering repercussion of the 2008 recession.

Motorists pay later for putting off vehicle maintenance now, as worn-down parts increase the likelihood of costly roadside breakdowns, Calkins said. A car-care fund can help motorists stick to their maintenance schedules, but for many low-income families, $50 a month is a big ask, said Asley Orr, executive director of Good News Mountaineer Garage, a nonprofit that donates used cars to West Virginians who need transportation to work.

“When you only have so many dollars and you have immediate needs in front of you, ideally you’d like to put away money, but it’s not something a lower- or even middle-income family can consistently do,” Orr said.

In rural communities, public transportation is not always an effective option. Without their own wheels, Orr’s clients have a hard time accessing work, groceries and child care. Good News Mountaineer Garage tells clients to stick to the maintenance schedules in their vehicles’ manuals, and to find trusted mechanics, Orr said.

A good mechanic will readily answer questions without acting evasive, she said. Networks of peers can also help motorists find reliable help.

“If they have a bad experience [with a mechanic] they’re more than happy to tell you about it, and vice versa,” Orr said.

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