Editorial: Fit for the road

Last updated 05:00 29/01/2013

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OPINION: Back in the day, when the only way to get a warrant of fitness was to have your car checked out at a government testing station, Kiwi drivers became masters of deception in their quest for a new little white windscreen sticker every six months.

In the 1950s and 60s, amid rigid overseas exchange controls that meant farmers were practically the only sector of the community with overseas earnings enough to buy new cars, many of the vehicles on New Zealand roads were pre-World War II vintages, 20 years old or more and careworn, most of them, because away from the main highways most roads were shingle tracks.

Working families lucky enough to own a vehicle faced the constant threat of failing a warrant of fitness test. Steering was one of the bigger problems; it was not unusual to be able to move the steering wheel a full quarter-turn before the worn-down teeth in the rack-and-pinion steering box picked up the slack.

Brakes were another common problem; as the cars grew older, the hydraulic brake lines began leaking and, when more fluid was added, developed airlocks, so in order to be ready to stop within a reasonable distance, drivers of cars with this problem - and there were many of them - would keep gently pumping the brake pedal as they drove along.

Every six months, back at the testing station for another warrant, various well-tried ploys were used to overcome such deficiencies. Heavy-duty grease and sawdust packed into the steering box provided a temporary fix for the floppy steering and also worked with worn differentials.

The dodgy brakes were a matter of timing. Drivers would stop in the entrance to the station, watching the car ahead being put through its paces while pumping furiously on the brake pedal, building the pressure up to a respectable level. The brakes were the first thing checked, so once the attendant was ready the car was driven up to just short of the four testing pads, the driver leapt out and as politely as possible rushed the tester into the driver's seat, and prayed there was still enough pressure to get through.

There is no need for that sort of cheating any more with most of the vehicles on New Zealand roads and, really, no need any more for those six-monthly checks. The quality of motor vehicle construction and the safety features are light-years ahead of earlier generations.

So the announcement that the Government intends to extend the warranty to 12 months for cars registered after January 1, 2000, is a sensible move that will save car owners considerable expense while at the same time, as has been shown in countries that already have longer warranty periods, maintaining road safety. New vehicles will not require a test for three years, though those first registered before 2000 will still have to undergo checks every six months.

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The new regulations, planned to be introduced next year, will place greater responsibility on vehicle owners, who will no longer be able to rely on warrant of fitness tests to alert them to worn tyres and blown headlights, but more vigilant policing, promised as part of the package, should sort that out.

The more lenient testing regime is likely to save motorists and businesses $159 million a year and at least $1.8 billion over 30 years, according to a research note released by the Ministry of Transport, because of savings on inspection, compliance costs, justice, enforcement, and time spent by motorists getting their warrants.

Those good old days weren't, actually.

- The Southland Times

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