WOF test: How often is safe?

HOW OFTEN: The Automobile Association says reducing the WoF frequency doesn't have to compromise safety.
HOW OFTEN: The Automobile Association says reducing the WoF frequency doesn't have to compromise safety.

As part of the reform of the vehicle licensing and Warrant of Fitness systems, the Government is looking at changing the frequency of the safety inspection. Changing the WOF system is a big decision that will affect us all, so it's important it's made on the basis of unbiased facts and evidence.

Let's put things in perspective. New Zealand has the most frequent vehicle safety inspection in the world. No other country requires cars aged 6 years or older (most of our fleet) to be tested twice a year.

Some countries have an annual inspection, and many only every two years. Others, like much of Australia and the United States, have no regular inspection at all.

Most vehicles in New Zealand are tested every 6000km. In Britain they're tested every 19,000km, and in Germany vehicles travel about 32,000km between inspections.

Yet despite these differences in inspection frequency the number of crashes caused by vehicle faults in New Zealand is about the same as other countries at about 2.5 per cent - or less than half a per cent where it is the sole cause.

This suggests that inspection frequency is not a silver bullet.

The question is, can we have a less-frequent test without increasing crash rates, and the international evidence suggests we can.

The age of New Zealand 's fleet is similar to that of many other countries - on average only 2-3 years older than test-free US and Australia. We drive the same type of vehicles with the same safety features and reliability, and our penalties for driving an unsafe vehicle are also comparable, except other countries also issue driver demerit points.

The facts are, when it comes to vehicle safety, New Zealand is like other countries and there is no evidence showing that Kiwi motorists should be treated differently when it comes to frequency of the WOF.

With our twice-yearly WOF, motorists are being burdened with higher costs than our counterparts in other countries, with no obvious reduction in vehicle fault- related crashes. In fatal crashes involving vehicle faults, 40 per cent didn't even have a current WOF.

Surveys suggest about 280,000 vehicles on the road don't have a WOF, and the Ministry of Transport estimates such vehicles involved in crashes are three times more likely to have a vehicle fault than those with a WOF.

The Government estimates the cost savings to motorists of eliminating unnecessary WOFs could range from $45 million to $275m a year without resulting in any more crashes, provided some other changes are made.

The Automobile Association believes some of the focus on vehicle safety should shift away from the majority of compliant motorists to the minority who choose to ignore our laws and put other lives at risk, and focusing more on factors that most contribute to crashes - tyres, brakes and lighting. When it comes to vehicle faults contributing to crashes, the main cause is worn tyres and our current six-monthly test isn't preventing that.

We need to be smarter about how we ensure vehicle safety is maintained and enforced, rather than only relying on a WOF check once or twice a year.

We need to encourage more motorists to get in the habit of regularly checking their tyres and vehicle condition themselves. If drivers in other countries can, so can we.

The international evidence suggests road safety will actually improve if we follow their example and reduce inspection frequency while beefing up driver education and roadside enforcement of unsafe vehicles.

In the last few decades the quality of the New Zealand fleet has vastly improved from the days when Kiwis routinely drove elderly and worn-out vehicles on unsafe roads, when our road toll was three times what it is today, and when a twice-yearly test made sense. Since then vehicle technology and safety have progressed, but the frequency of the WOF test hasn't changed to suit. Maybe it's time it did.

Mark Stockdale is principal adviser at the New Zealand Automobile Association

The Dominion Post