WOF tests warrant closer inspection

Warrant of fitness time for my Moto-Guzzi motorcycle is always interesting.

Unlike the family Toyota, which has flown through every WOF it has ever faced, the ageing Guzzi ensures I never forget it's Italian. Although it can deliver passionate pleasure, it's prepared to deliver harsh heartache in equal doses.

The trick to maximising the former and minimising the latter is preventive maintenance.

Fortunately, the bike specialist at Wellington's VTNZ testing station is a rocket scientist when it comes to spotting stuff early. So when he puts the old bike through its six-monthly WOF, as well as ensuring it chins the bar of legal compliance, he also throws me helpful advice on things that might need a bit of attention.

I've always been a believer in the benefits of a VTNZ WOF. I reckon its standards are higher, and the fact that it doesn't make money repairing broken stuff makes me more inclined to trust it.

Companies such as VTNZ are facing a shake-up as the Government conducts its Vehicle Licensing Reform review. This review is looking at both the WOF and COF (certificate of fitness for commercial vehicles) schemes.

The aim is to save people time and money, while still supporting road safety. A defining issue is whether the current WOF regime - where you need a WOF every 12 months for the first six years of a vehicle's life and then every six months after that - should be replaced with a simpler system. Four options are suggested.

Option one involves moving to annual WOF inspections for the first 12 years of a vehicle's life and six monthly thereafter. Option two has the first inspection at three years, then moving to yearly from year four. Options three and four are increasingly lower touch - based on distance travelled or change of ownership.

All four options shrink annual costs for consumers, with option one saving an estimated $45 million to $70m, option two saving $125m to $185m, and options three and four save more again, up to a maximum of $275m a year.

At first blush, the case against changing the system is a no-brainer: Why support a change that reduces the number of safety checks for vehicles? Wouldn't that deliver a heap more road deaths from unsafe cars and make us the laughing stock of the car world? Well, not necessarily.

New Zealand has one of the heaviest vehicle inspection regimes in the world, and according to the AA, it is the only country where inspections can be as frequent as six-monthly. By contrast the first test in Australia is at five years. It's also surprisingly tough to strongly link WOF frequency to road safety.

Transport Ministry analysis shows that car faults contribute to only 2.5 per cent of all fatal and injury-causing crashes (the same as Britain which has a less regular inspection regime) and are the sole cause for just 0.4 per cent of such crashes. VTNZ's analysis suggests this figure may be two to three times higher.

The road toll has averaged 347 in the past three years. If we apply the MOT figures to that number, it suggests car faults alone caused 1.38 fatal and injury accidents. Let's assume that VTNZ is right and the real figure is higher, say 4.0. So the key question becomes: Is the ability to save consumers between $45m and $275m worth the cost of four injured or dead people? MOT's answer is to combine the new WOF inspection regime with an information and advice programme, a new infringement policy and demerit points for unsafe vehicles.

VTNZ's owner, the Motor Trade Association (MTA), has a different answer to the question, and it's captured in the tagline of its high-profile advertising and advocacy campaign, "Hands off the WOF". In other words, don't muck around with the status quo and public safety.

A reasonable argument, but it does itself no favours by not stating its fiscal interest in the outcome. VTNZ is the MTA's primary money earner, delivering record annual revenue for the past two years of more than $80m. WOFs and COFs are a big part of that.

What Murph doesn't mention in the television ads is how much money the MTA would lose with the new options. It's also a little ironic that in Murph's home of Australia most states have no periodic car inspection requirements.

VTNZ issues 900,000 WOFs a year, so the impact of the alternative options wouldn't be trivial.

The Vehicle Licensing Reform review affects every car owner in New Zealand, and you'll never have a better chance to comment than now at transport.govt.nz. You'd be a mug not to have your say when it's both your arse and your wallet on the line.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, author and eCommerce manager. He has owned three Guzzis and reckons the 850 Mk3 Lemans is the pick of them.