Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley believes the NZ Transport Agency "dropped the ball" after failing to monitor vehicle safety checks.

Shirley's claim comes after lawyers were called in to review 850 cases of compliance after NZTA failed to properly check companies that certify vehicles as safe for road use.

"The problem is, when the regulator is not on top of it, the compliant subsidise the non-compliant. That's been a long-standing concern of our industry," Shirley said.

"There's any amount of temptation for people to cut corners and compete unfairly and drive freight rates down by not complying with the work time rule, overloading and even speeding. None of those are acceptable."

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Mike Noon of the Automobile Association (AA) said it was concerning and appeared to be a regulatory failure.

Noon hoped the NZTA would resolve the incident with urgency and said the announcement didn't explain how many vehicles were impacted.

"I think we need to learn more. At this stage we don't know how big that issue is but it does look like the current system that is in operation is not actually fit for purpose or is not working well, and that is a concern," Noon said.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford also said he was disappointed that NZTA had failed to carry out its regulatory responsibilities to the standard he expected.

Twyford said the clear implication was that there were unsafe vehicles on the roads.

"This is very disappointing. Public safety must be paramount," he said today.

"There has been a regulatory lapse."

Twyford said he had been deeply concerned when told of the issue but said it was too early to determine if anyone would lose their jobs.

NZTA had failed in its duty to properly check the companies that certify vehicles as safe for the road, and other services.

"When problems with these companies were identified, there was often no follow-up," he said.

Law firm Meredith Connell had been brought in by the NZTA board to review 850 open compliance files.

About 152 files required urgent legal or investigative review and that work is expected to be completed by early November.

Meredith Connell would also lead the compliance function within NZTA and where necessary, certifications would be revoked or other action taken, such as taking away their licence to operate completely.

"The board will look into how this went on for so many years and why it was not dealt with earlier," Twyford said.

"The board has also advised me that the Transport Agency will be taking a more rigorous and pro-active approach to safety regulation from now on."

The Transport Minister said that the failure on the part of NZTA to properly check certifications was in part the result of a reduced focus on the agency's regulatory role over the last decade.

"Staff were redeployed and there was an emphasis on education rather than enforcement. This was exacerbated in 2014 when the agency lost staff from its heavy vehicle compliance team."

NZTA chief executive Fergus Gammie said: "It is clear that our approach has not been sufficiently robust to categorically ensure the highest levels of regulatory compliance.

"The NZTA has been too reliant on self-regulation and has not devoted enough attention or resource to ensuring compliance."

Gammie said the review had already identified a range of non-compliance across the regulatory areas overseen by NZTA.

"The public can expect full accountability and an increased number of enforcement actions taken to ensure compliance," he said.

"The Transport Agency has now instigated a risk-based approach to addressing any non-compliance where public safety could be at risk, giving priority to the most urgent cases."

NZTA board chairman Michael Stiassny said the way the agency had been working had allowed the certifying companies to set the agenda.

Stiassny said there were compliance files that had sat for some time without any investigation.

Twyford said he had been deeply concerned when he was told of the issue but said it was too early to determine if anyone would lose their jobs.

He said that the failure on the part of the NZTA to properly check certifies was in part the result of a reduced focus on the agency's regulatory role over the last decade. "Staff were redeployed and there was an emphasis on education rather than enforcement. This was exacerbated in 2014 when the agency lost staff from its heavy vehicle compliance team."

Meredith Connell would also lead the compliance function within the NZTA and where necessary, certifications would be revoked or other action taken, such as taking away their licence to operate completely.

"The board will look into how this went on for so many years and why it was not dealt with earlier. The board has also advised me that the NZTA will be taking a more rigorous and proactive approach to safety regulation from now on," Twyford said.

Gammie said the review had already identified a range of non-compliance across the regulatory areas overseen by the transport agency.

"The public can expect full accountability and an increased number of enforcement actions taken to ensure compliance. The transport agency has now instigated a risk-based approach to addressing any non-compliance where public safety could be at risk, giving priority to the most urgent cases," Gammie said.