Wheelchair-user cars pulled from roads

TESSA JOHNSTONE
Last updated 05:00 01/01/2014

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A car modified for wheelchair users has been pulled off the road after concerns its floor could become detached because it was only glued on.

The NZ Transport Agency has revoked the warrants of fitness of eight Skoda Yetis that were modified by Auckland company U Drive Mobility after five months of trying to work through serious safety concerns.

U Drive Mobility imports the vehicles, which are disassembled and then put together again in New Zealand with modifications that allow wheelchair users to get in and out independently.

Modifications include replacing the original, reinforced steel floor with an aluminium sandwich panel that is glued into the body of the vehicle with epoxy, a car panel glue that NZTA says is not safe for use on load-bearing vehicle body parts.

NZTA spokesman Andy Knackstedt said there were serious concerns about the design and construction of the cars, specifically about the floors and the stability of their independent rear suspensions.

"The effect of these [floor] modifications was to remove a significant part of the vehicle's structure and replace it with material not designed and constructed with materials and components that are fit for purpose.

"The structural integrity of the vehicle would likely be significantly compromised in a serious crash."

Warrants of fitness were issued for four of the cars before the modifications were made, and four were given certification incorrectly, Mr Knackstedt said.

The cars were certified by an independent assessor, but a second set of checks by the Low-Volume Vehicle Technical Association (LVVTA) highlighted serious safety issues.

Mr Knackstedt said U Drive Mobility had not been able to satisfy NZTA or the LVVTA that the cars were safe and fit for purpose.

Eight people who bought the vehicles - some with grants from the Ministry of Health and the Lotteries Commission - have been ordered not to drive them until the issues are resolved.

NZTA has offered affected owners $5000 to cover transport needs until then, and told them to consider seeking independent legal advice and contacting the health and disability commissioner.

U Drive Mobility director Roger Phillips said the company was working through the compliance process with NZTA and LVVTA, but he did not have any concerns about the safety of the cars.

"They've been on the road now, the oldest one for nearly two years, and there hasn't been a problem with the vehicles, nothing. It's a compliance issue."

Mr Phillips said customers had been kept informed and the company had followed the processes, and done what it had been asked to do to resolve the issues, including passing required tests.

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LVVTA chief executive Tony Johnson said U Drive Mobility had been reluctant to accept the seriousness of the issue, and a recall and repair of the cars in November had failed to fix the issue.

The Vehicle Association of New Zealand, a watchdog for modifications on cars for people with disabilities, said there were already similarly designed cars on the market, and all had been through the certification process.

Chairman Robert Berger said the association stood by LVVTA's assessment of the cars, but the system had failed.

"The system has failed the owners of the vehicles and people with disabilities, in that it should never have got to this stage of construction, it should not have happened.

"Right at the beginning, the certifiers should have looked at the job and said, this isn't safe, and that should have been the end of it."

- The Dominion Post

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