For many people, one of life's more irritating tasks is the warrant of fitness check on their car every six months. Always, this seems to cost more than the last time, with some testing stations now charging as much as $50. And often enough, it involves sitting for some time in a queue, only to then be told that their vehicle has failed the test for what seems a relatively minor defect. Many people will, therefore, be hoping that a more liberal regime is the outcome of a vehicle licensing reform project being undertaken by the Ministry of Transport and the Transport Agency.

It is easy enough to understand the origins of the present system, which has been in force for many years. Cars were once far more prone to defects that could result in accidents or breakdowns. Additionally, this country's car fleet was noticeably aged, a product of the high cost of importation. That is far less the case today, although New Zealand remains unusual thanks to the number of cheap second-hand cars imported from Japan.

The age of many of these imports and the number of old cars that remain on the road would appear to be a major justification for maintaining the current system and the large infrastructure of testing stations and mechanics required for 7.7 million warrant of fitness visits annually. That, plus the reassurance supplied to some owners of older vehicles by frequent inspection.

But as the Transport Minister, Gerry Brownlee, has pointed out, New Zealand's testing system is one of the most frequent in the OECD. Comparable jurisdictions, such as Australia and Britain, have nothing like the same degree of stringency. To a far greater degree, they leave responsibility for ensuring cars are free from defects to the owners. The assumption is that people are well aware when their vehicle is dangerous and can be counted on to take the appropriate steps to repair them. Some countries that have a more lenient approach to testing give the police substantial power to order dangerous cars off the road.


The task for the reform project is to come up with a new system that reduces the cost and inconvenience burden on households, especially, and the agencies that oversee its working, while retaining road safety as the top priority. Reassuringly, Mr Brownlee seems to have recognised this. "Safety will remain a key priority in considering any changes," he says. That must continue to be the foremost element when proposed changes, scheduled by the end of this year, are announced.

The present system already incorporates some acknowledgment that car manufacturing has improved enormously over the past few decades, and modern vehicles are far less prone to dangerous defects. Cars under six years old are required to have only an annual warrant of fitness. The review will surely find that the circumstances are right for a further liberalisation.

A reasonable compromise would be annual inspections of cars more than six years old. This would recognise the greater durability of modern cars, and that vehicle defects are, in any event, a relatively minor cause of accidents. But it would also acknowledge that the make-up of this country's fleet makes it inappropriate to have as lenient a regime as some states of Australia, where cars require a certificate of road worthiness only when they are being sold.

It would also reflect that New Zealanders are licensed to drive at a relatively young age. At that stage of their lives, they may not have either the funds for repairs or the maturity to understand their importance. Ignoring such factors and their impact on road safety would be unwarranted.