Control of Vehicle Condition: A Regional System Failure

June 18, 2018
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Methods of controlling the condition of vehicles vary greatly around the world. Which is the best for our region?

It has been estimated that the condition of vehicles is a factor in about ten percent of road accidents. In the absence of any reliable monitoring system, it is difficult to establish whether the efforts to mitigate this are successful.

It is apparent from the current appalling accident experience of most countries in the southern and eastern region of Africa that there is little control of all the factors making up the basics of road safety, including vehicle condition.

The situation in some parts of the eastern and southern African region is often much worse than in South Africa.

Periodic inspection of light vehicles offers some information on whether they are being maintained; but, for heavy vehicles that travel up to
110 000 km per year, there is a far greater level of regular maintenance required. One annual inspection for 45 minutes at a testing station to get a Certificate of Roadworthiness (COR), is about as effective for quality control as changing a baby’s nappy annually on his or her birthday…

The South African vehicle test centre system, introduced in the 1980s, makes use of about 600 South African Bureau of Standards (SABS)-registered private-sector testing stations within a very complex system.

Despite its complexity, the system is not effective for commercial vehicles. It is still vulnerable to corruption and collusion, as vehicle operators often “negotiate” with test centres to save the cost of extensive repairs, just to get the COR.

With appropriate system backup and a database coupled to an operator register, the test-centre inspections could be integrated into an effective monitoring system.

It must be noted that suspensions, brake systems and electrical items form a high proportion of the faults recorded. It is evident that owners and operators send vehicles for testing without bothering to first attend to defects (sometimes they are even unwashed), to ascertain what must be fixed. They then repair only the failed items and return the vehicles for re-inspection.

The theory is that test centres will refuse to tolerate such treatment. The reality is, however, that the test-station businesses require customers and therefore “accommodate” patrons to retain their business, by whatever means.

Operators also “primp” vehicles to pass the test and exchange parts, for example, worn tyres, before putting them back in the stores. The end result is that the issue of a COR is no guarantee of roadworthy condition of a vehicle, and the un-roadworthy vehicles continue to operate on the public roads.

It is matter for concern for Fesarta and the industry that this system is part of the Tripartite Transport and Transit Facilitation Programme package that is being advocated for the entire Tripartite region.

Even when annual examinations are professionally performed, the effects of the COR inspection can be completely nullified in a matter of days by operating conditions and component failures.

This does not negate the usefulness of the testing process, but does raise questions regarding the need for excessive sophistication of testing stations and underscores the need for more frequent, effective roadside inspection systems.

Another problem with annual official inspections, is the fact that operators can negate the effectiveness of the inspection by substitution of number plates, swapping components, and, in many cases, resort to collusion and bribery of testing officials to avoid the expense of performing repairs to pass the COR examination.

In practice, it is essential for the authorities to link roadside inspections to the annual COR and operator registration system, in order to identify loopholes and the efficacy of the testing centres.

The system in the United Kingdom (UK) is more effective, as it requires private workshops to be registered
as MOT (Ministry of Transport) testing and service centres to which the vehicle owners send their vehicles for annual inspections, quotes and repairs.

The workshop takes the vehicle to the government inspection centre (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency), and collects the MOT clearance documents. The government test centre is isolated from customers and is totally technical and non-commercial. The system is, therefore, free of corruption and collusion. Workshops that present too many failed vehicles can lose their MOT accreditation.

In addition to the annual inspection, the most cost-effective method of ensuring the condition of commercial vehicles is for authorities in all areas to deploy properly trained and equipped “vehicle inspectors”. These technical experts would have the authority to roam and randomly stop and inspect any vehicle.

The roadside reports should be recorded on the operator’s record in the operator registration system, and immediate action should be taken regarding un-roadworthy vehicles, including discontinuance of operation, referral to a test centre for complete inspection, or penalty for offense.

Each inspection should be recorded in a book, with one copy given to the driver, one copy to the operator register and one copy in the book. All documentation should carry the operator registration number.

The database of operator offenses would enable the identification of repeat offenders. The records of inspections at test centres and at the roadside will enable effective enforcement action by the authorities.

These processes are recommended in the Road Freight Strategy for South Africa, which was approved by Cabinet in 2017 – but has yet to be implemented.

Mike Fitzmaurice is the CEO of the Federation of East and Southern Africa Road Transport Associations (Fesarta). He has 42 years of experience in the transport and logistics industry with several major companies in South Africa, as well as overseas exposure with some of the leading transport companies in six European countries. Since 2004 he has established and run Transport Logistics Consultants. In May 2015 he became CEO of Fesarta.

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