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Debate: Should we have fewer WoF checks?

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Reform of the vehicle licensing system is under consideration and one of the main suggestions is to change the Warrant of Fitness rules. Here we present two opposing views. Join the debate by voting and leaving a comment at the end.

Digital image / P.K. Stowers
Digital image / P.K. Stowers

Simon Bridges: Yes. Safety is still paramont.

The Government's Vehicle Licensing Reform discussion document, recently released for public consultation, has already generated great interest.

Understandably, some ask whether reducing the number of Warrant of Fitness inspections would lead to more unsafe vehicles with bald tyres or dodgy brakes.

Changing the Warrant of Fitness inspection frequency is only one piece of the jigsaw. None of the four options outlined suggest frequency changes alone and none suggest removing vehicle inspections altogether. The suggested options are packages of measures designed to make sure vehicles remain safe, while also reducing costs which are around $245 million each year in inspection fees.

The system has been around since the 1930s. This review asks whether, in 2012, we can put in place a more modern system that reflects technological advancements, while ensuring we continue to have safe vehicles on our roads.

A great deal of research has been undertaken by transport officials. While more work needs to be done, traffic crash reports show us that vehicle safety problems detected during Warrant of Fitness inspections contribute to about 2.5 per cent of all fatal and injury crashes, and the sole cause in about 0.5 per cent.

It is not unreasonable to ask if we could use a different approach that targets risk better and more cost-effectively.

Our inspection regime is the most frequent in the OECD. In Australia, the frequency of inspections is less than in New Zealand's system. In a number of states, a safety inspection is only required at change of ownership. Across the board, Australia has better road safety outcomes than we do.

One tool that may have an impact on road safety is an improved or different inspection test. An improved test might be broadly similar to the current test, but better targeted to safety risk and newer technology. It could include suspension testing for older vehicles, enhanced brake testing and a check of advanced safety systems such as electronic stability control.

To prevent unnecessary repair costs being imposed on motorists, we also need to ensure any changes to the current test are justified by safety risk.

Another measure is information and advice for motorists. Currently motorists may rely too much on having a Warrant of Fitness, instead of keeping their vehicles safe and well maintained on an on-going basis. Vehicle owners could be encouraged to maintain their vehicle safety between inspections. Targeted advertising, information and advice could be used to encourage maintenance, especially if focused on high risk faults such as defective tyres, brakes and lights.

Our package of measures suggests road-side enforcement could be better targeted at faults that are the biggest contributors to crashes, such as tyres and lights. Many vehicle systems deteriorate relatively slowly and so suit periodic inspections. Other systems like lighting can fail unpredictably between inspections. Tyres can wear rapidly and beyond safe limits between Warrant of Fitness checks. Compliance activities could be better targeted to parts more likely to fail between inspections.

In Queensland, the Safe Drive initiative sees transport inspectors checking cars during school holiday periods to ensure they are mechanically safe. This road-side enforcement method is also worth exploring.

Greater use of technology to identify vehicles without a Warrant of Fitness, teamed with roadside reminders such as electronic message boards and the improved infringement system, are more tools in the enforcement pack.

Introduced as a package, these enforcement measures could help reduce the number of vehicles without a Warrant of Fitness and so keep the vehicle fleet safer.

All the suggested measures come at a cost and further analysis is needed to pinpoint the most effective to combine with changed inspection frequency. If reform occurs, it will be a package of measures.

I'm very keen to hear the views of the transport industry and motorists.

I urge all drivers with an interest to visit the Vehicle Licensing Reform page at www.transport.govt.nz where there's an opportunity to submit on proposals to improve our certificate of fitness system, annual vehicle licensing (registration) and transport services licensing. Over 14 million transactions are generated annually by these systems. We are keen to ensure their rationale is still clear and justified.

Simon Bridges is Associate Minister of Transport.

Ian Stronach: No. Changing rules is a leap too far.

Next time you are driving along a state highway, think about the part trust plays in you arriving safely at your destination. Trust plays a big part, it really does.

For a start, generally, the only thing that's separating you from traffic coming towards you at 100 km/h is a strip of paint about 12cm wide. With so little separating you from all the other motorists around you and potential disaster, you have to have a pretty high level of trust.

You need to trust that you have the right driving skills to avoid an accident, and that the opposing driver does as well. And you have to trust that both your and their cars are up to scratch - they have been regularly serviced, are well maintained, and meet a good standard of roadworthiness.

To make sure they are roadworthy, New Zealand has had an effective and well known system in place for more than 70 years; it's called a Warrant of Fitness (WoF). It's a comprehensive safety inspection that makes sure that at that time it was inspected, your car is roadworthy - it has no defects or wear that could make it unsafe either to you or to other road users. Depending on the age of your car, WoFs are required every six or 12 months. Everyone understands the system and it works well. It helps keep our roads safe.

Now though, in its quest to remove costs and inefficiencies, wherever they might arise, the Government is reviewing WoF frequency as part of its Vehicle Licensing Reform. MTA supports this review. The key though, is what's really at stake?

In this case, the Government has modelled a range of future options for WoF and is now seeking feedback on them. All options involve less frequent WoFs. The Government, though, have looked at the various costs and effects that each option might involve, matched those against the current estimated costs of the WoF programme and come up with a range of theoretical cost savings. They claim potential savings of between $60 million and $240 million a year, depending on the option chosen. These are impressive savings. Or are they?

The Government is asking us to trust that the options they have proposed would provide only savings. That there would be no additional costs, financial or personal. It's worth noting though that their own data, which some feel is taken from a very conservative base, indicates that there could be additional fatalities and serious injuries - the level of which depends on the options chosen. At present they say between seven and 84 additional fatalities and between 16 and 179 additional serious injuries. That's quite a few.

But the Government say that we can trust them; they say they will be able to put in place measures that will stop any additional fatalities or serious injuries from actually occurring. There will be stronger enforcement, additional roadside checks and greater education about the benefits of regular servicing and main-tenance, we are advised. The costs they have allocated for this seem to be low.

This is not the first time a Government has attempted to change road safety outcomes using a similar range of measures; this combination has been used in various forms to help combat drink-driving for at least 40 years. Yes, some progress has been made, but at a huge cost both financially and in human terms.

So by placing our trust in the hands of the Government, what are the chances they'll get it right this time? There are already around 275,000 vehicles driving around without a WoF. If we can't enforce the existing programmes, what chance is there when inspection intervals may be twice as long?

Equally importantly, will the resources be available to carry out any additional enforcement? Police are already under pressure. They say they don't have the resources to carry out many basic tasks as it is. Without a big increase in resources (read costs) it's hard to see how they could properly manage further such demands.

How will these extra roadside checks actually work - who will do those? Isn't that a matter of who is best placed to conduct a thorough safety check of a vehicle? Is that someone on the side of the road who is primarily trained in things other than vehicle inspection, or someone with mechanical experience that inspects vehicles in a workshop or testing facility for a living?

There are many questions around the issue of WoF frequency. Motorists will have to trust that no harm will come to them as a result of any of the options. That's quite a leap of faith. Based on previous attempts to modify people's behaviours, it might be a leap too far.

Ian Stronach is marketing and communications general manager, MTA.

- NZ Herald

Featured comments

"We have one of the poorest car fleets in the OECD to start with. We also have some of the most rugged roads and drivers who rarely service their vehicles."

Ian G
Alchemist

"WoFs every six months is just about creating an industry out of nothing and forcing road users to incur unecessary costs. Once a year is more than sufficient."

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