Motorsport legend Greg Murphy has had many impressive wins during his high-profile career. And his likeable personality has made him a popular Kiwi hero. But you have to wonder whether “Murph” has joined the right team by agreeing to be the spokesman for the Motor Trade Association (MTA), and the frontman for its latest campaign, to convince the Government to keep six-monthly warrant of fitness inspections for most of the country’s vehicle fleet. There are, of course, some mechanics who are genuinely horrified at the Government’s proposal to reform the entire vehicle-licensing system. Even the Ministry of Transport concedes that less-frequent inspections could result in more tragedy on the roads. But as always in such debates, both sides tend to exploit the statistics for their own purposes. The MTA claims that 2.5% of serious crashes are the result of mechanical failure or lack of roadworthiness, but that is not quite the full story. It is only a contributing factor. It is believed to be the sole factor in only 0.5% of all such crashes. Driver error is by far the biggest problem we need to address. Unfortunately for the MTA, it is also difficult for many people to believe that its campaign isn’t driven largely by self-interest.
About 4000 motor trade outlets are members of the association, and the ministry admits that many of these could go out of business if inspections become less frequent. Despite the concern that this could force motorists to travel further to get a warrant in future, the AA has welcomed the review. It notes that New Zealand has one of the most frequent inspection regimes in the world. In parts of Australia, inspection occurs only at a change of ownership; in the UK, it is done annually; in some Australian and US states, there is no inspection at all. Critics are right to note New Zealand also has one of the oldest vehicle fleets in the world. But this is not necessarily as big an issue as it appears.
One of the reasons people are keeping their cars longer these days is that they don’t rust as quickly as they did in the past, and they are generally much more reliable. And unlike many other countries, New Zealand does not encourage turnover to assist local car manufacturers. Nevertheless, it will be some time before the huge influx of Japanese imports that entered the country around the turn of the century eventually gets scrapped. By 2020, more than 15% of New Zealand’s cars, vans, utes and 4WDs are expected to be more than 20 years old. For this reason alone, we would indeed be crazy to get too lax about safety. We must not forget the lessons of tragedies such as Pike River so soon. But we shouldn’t be afraid to re-evaluate a system that has been in place essentially unchanged for more than 70 years. Predictably, the ministry has come up with some provocative suggestions. It asks, for example, whether the transport services licensing regime should be scrapped. But there are some good ideas, too, such as giving vehicle owners a grace period to get an overdue warrant, rather than an instant fine. And improving the test itself.
The AA has sensibly suggested more comprehensive emissions tests, which alone could eventually save more lives than might be lost through faulty lights or seat belts, if independent reports are correct about the impact of vehicle emissions on our health. Other suggestions include changes to how vehicle infringements are dealt with; the introduction of demerit points for operating an unsafe vehicle; and monitoring vehicles through automatic number plate recognition. Murphy may be right that we will regret any radical changes that rely on cash-strapped and uncaring owners to monitor their own safety, and therefore the safety of others. But allowing newer vehicles to go through less-frequent inspections makes sense. Many are required to be regularly serviced anyway, as part of their warranties. For other motorists, more stringent tests and more stringent on-road enforcement might not necessarily save money, but it might be a fair compromise – and a less wasteful regime.