Don’t Touch That – Protecting Yourself from Questionable Vehicles

by Alana Quartuccio

Automotive professionals can’t afford to be too cautious.

There is a growing list of risk factors that an auto body shop owner has to keep in mind. Whether it’s protecting one’s business from liability, staying up with OSHA requirements or simply making sure repairers are properly trained to handle things like high-voltage batteries, the conversations never cease when it comes to safety and protection. 

In fact, some conversations have only just begun when it comes to dealing with vehicles that may have been exposed to illegal substances. 

The crew at 821 Collision (North Haledon) recently had a vehicle arrive at their door that left them with no choice but to learn all about it. 

“We looked at it and thought, ‘What is going on with this car?’” explained Danielle Molina, who says the car was recovered after being stolen, and where the car had been or what it had been used for during the time it had been missing was, of course, unknown. 

“The owner of the vehicle brought it to us. It was not wrecked physically, but it was non-drivable and had computer issues in need of repair. The insurance company asked us for a repair plan, and that’s when the thought occurred to us – is it safe to touch?” 

Molina recalled reading an article about a police officer who fell victim to a drug overdose just by brushing white powder off his uniform at a traffic stop. “He just brushed his shoulder and found himself unconscious an hour later!” she recounted. This alarming situation stayed clear in her mind and upon looking at the vehicle. “It did not come in pristine looking. There were indications that it had been used for something other than a healthy purpose.” 

Protecting their workers is not a new concept at the shop; precautions are always put into place. “We are always very careful. We wear gloves and cover parts such as the steering wheel, gear shift, seat and other things that we’re likely to touch, but it’s different with theft recovery,” Molina shared. “The customer had not even thought about the vehicle being exposed to narcotics. It’s a conversation we must have with the customer if their vehicle has been stolen. No one knows what the vehicle was used for during the time it was stolen.” 

Finding professionals to inspect and clean the vehicle was not an easy task. The shop’s owner, Ken Miller, had been aware of shops encountering this situation, but services seemed to be more common on the west coast, Molina said. Upon researching, they found PPM Site Services, an environmental and disaster response team experienced with cleaning vehicles, including police cars. It’s not every day that they are called in to body shops to clean out theft recovery vehicles, but it’s a need that is beginning to grow, according to Angel L. LeDuc, vice president of PPM Site Services. 

“Body shops have called us in because they don’t want to touch anything until they know the vehicle has been decontaminated, so we come in and clean it inside and out. We test the vehicle for substances, and then we test it again to make sure there are no traces of anything left behind.

“The majority of the time, we barely find anything,” he added, but in the cases where they find traces of something, it’s usually fentanyl, in which case they report it to the authorities. 

LeDuc’s advice to any shop owner who has a questionable vehicle onsite is to not touch it and call in professionals to clean and inspect it. “You don’t want to come in contact with [fentanyl or other substances],” he said. “We know the effects it can have on people.” 

Molina recalled the decontamination process as being “pretty impressive looking. They wore full Hazmat suits and blocked off a whole area of the lot for a few hours. It was impactful to see what they did to protect themselves.” 

Having conversations about safety and decontamination doesn’t end at the shop with the customer; it also has to go to the insurance company.

“Insurance companies have to be introduced to this too,” Molina observed. “And it’s an expensive process – not in comparison to someone’s life but to an appraiser who thought they would only have to pay for a detail, it was expensive.” 

She can’t stress enough how important it is to protect workers from exposure to the unknown. Molina believes there were traces of marijuana and possibly meth in the vehicle they had inspected. “They found the residue inside the locked trunk. It’s fortunate that none of our guys unlocked the trunk, so they didn’t come into contact with the illicit substances, but it’s concerning that the potential was there if we hadn’t taken precautions!”

Want more? Check out the June 2024 issue of New Jersey Automotive!