The good news for Kaitaia woman Ruby MacKinnon last week was that the rear seat belts in her 2014 Nissan Pulsar had been officially declared safe to use. The bad news was that the front belts failed, again.
Ms MacKinnon, who said she bought the car new because she wanted trouble-free motoring, is now riding a pushbike, and will continue to do so until the front belts are replaced.
The saga began when Ms MacKinnon took the car to a Kaitaia garage for a warrant of fitness. It was failed, on the grounds that all four seat belts would have to be replaced. She said the garage struggled to show her where her seat belt webbing was damaged, so she sought a second opinion from her dealership, which did not see a problem.
A VTNZ inspector in Whangārei reached the same conclusion, and issued a warrant.
That prompted the original garage to lodge a complaint with the NZ Transport Agency.
On Monday last week a NZTA inspector examined the car in Kaitaia, determining that the rear belts met the required standard but the front belts did not. Ms MacKinnon said the driver's belt had a very small area of fraying, possibly caused by the door shutting on it, while the passenger's had an equally small area of 'fluffing' one edge, possibly as the result of abrading when the belt retracted.
VTNZ in Whangārei had offered to replace the front belts, at a cost of $1200, which were to be fitted by a garage in Whangārei. In the meantime Ms MacKinnon had been told last week that she could drive the car home, and to a place of repair, but it was otherwise ordered off the road.
The belts would be fitted in three weeks' time.
The NZTA had told her that it would be talking to VTNZ in Whangārei, which she took to mean that staff there would be reprimanded.
She had no idea, however, how the belts in a five-year-old car could fail a warrant of fitness check. She believed the complaint to the NZTA had been vindictive, and that she was being punished for speaking out.
The NZTA issued a statement saying disagreements between inspectors were not unusual, and it regularly investigated complaints of this nature. Given that more than 8000 inspectors conducted more than four million WoF inspections every year, that was not be unexpected.
Two dozen garages nationwide have been suspended from issuing warrants, and almost 40,000 vehicles approved by those garages face re-inspection.
The Kaitaia garage is not one of them, but Ms MacKinnon had suspicions that the NZTA suspensions had scared some WoF inspectors into being overzealous.
Motor Trade Association chief executive Craig Pomare tended to agree.
"The feedback we're getting from members who are inspectors is that where previously they may have sat on the 'pass' side, they are perhaps almost double-checking themselves," he said.
"If there was something an inspector was going to fail rather than pass, it would be critical safety elements like the seat belts."
The situation was exacerbated by the outdated, vague instruction manual for warrant inspections that the NZTA had not updated for years, and which was "very subjective."
The NZTA was now working with the MTA to update the manual.
Meanwhile Ms MacKinnon said having her car off the road for three weeks was causing significant issues, particularly in terms of her voluntary work for Far North Hospice in Kaitaia and Switzer Residential Care.
"I feel that I'm letting a lot of people down," she said.
One positive that had come of it was that the damage some child safety seats was reportedly doing to seat belt webbing was to be investigated.