A research group looking at unroadworthy vehicles on SA’s roads has recommended that taxis undergo roadworthy tests every six months instead of once a year to help prevent accidents.

A research group looking at unroadworthy vehicles on SA’s roads has recommended that taxis undergo roadworthy tests every six months instead of once a year to help prevent accidents.

According to a research document completed by the University of Natal Interdisciplinary Accident Research Centre (Uniarc), the number of unroadworthy vehicles with suspect certificates of roadworthiness (CRWs) on SA roads increased by 16,2 per cent between 1997 and 2001.

The study was undertaken in the Durban Metropolitan area and looked at accident reports based on independent investigation into accidents between 1996 and 2001 by the Collision Investigation Unit (CIU). The research was conducted between September and November 2002.

The research document was used in the sentencing of two former employees of the Isipingo Roadworthiness Test Station near Durban, who were last week sentenced to an effective four years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of 676 charges of fraud.

“From 1997 to 2001, minibus taxis were the most prominent vehicle group with questionable CRWs. However, between 1999 and 2000, motorcars made up at least a tenth of the vehicles with illegitimate CRWs, peaking in 1999 with 25 per cent of the unroadworthy vehicles being sedans or hatchbacks,” the report stated.

The report said that the most common problem was worn tyres. There were also vehicles with badly rusted bodies and worn brakes, suspension and steering.

The report cited the example of a taxi that three months after obtaining a CRW was involved in an accident, in which the driver and many of the passengers died. The taxi had tyres that were worn down to the steel casing, brake tubing was cut off and clamped, the mechanical brake was disconnected and steering bolt missing. Sections of the vehicle were covered with galvanized plates and the gaps between the plates were filled with body putty. Rust had weakened the vehicle’s structure and had led to extensive compacting of the vehicle on impact.

It was felt that periods between tests for public vehicles were too long. The condition of vehicles had deteriorated since six-monthly fitness tests were changed to one-year intervals.

“Owners who were reluctant to spend money on repairs appeared to have taken advantage of this ‘extra time’ not to service these vehicles. The condition of slightly defective components would deteriorate rapidly and develop into more serious and cost intensive defects,” said the report.

The research found that immense pressure was placed on the driver to meet the strict daily requirements of numbers, both in trips made and passengers ferried - as this has a direct bearing on the driver’s earnings. This also impacted on the vehicle’s mechanical condition, since the driver could not afford to take the vehicle off the road for urgent repairs.

“The driver (who was usually mechanically ignorant) would attempt emergency repairs in any manner possible to keep the vehicle mobile until the day’s run was over. A mechanic (often a “bush mechanic”) then dealt with the problem in poor lighting and within impossible timeframes, as the vehicle had to be ready for the morning run,” the report stated.

The report stated that these vehicles had to be tested more often. “Perhaps a merit system should be introduced - minibus operators who maintain their vehicles receive incentives – such as discounted spares or even fuel for that matter,” the report suggested.

CIU officials said that a decline in vehicle fitness had a lot to do with the fact that owners knew they could get away with unroadworthy vehicles, since law enforcement was poor.

“If a car was stopped for inspection and found to be in an unroadworthy condition, in most instances law enforcement would not run its course.

One of the CIU inspectors felt that there were two possible reasons for this: Personnel competence and the prosecution process.

“The CIU felt that not all traffic officers had the required competence to inspect a vehicle and make an informed evaluation of the vehicle’s fitness. This resulted in many vehicles not being inspected for roadworthiness.

“If a vehicle was involved in an accident and was found to be unroadworthy, it could go to court. In this matter, however, the case was usually between the owner and the insurer. Most cases involving unroadworthy vehicles did not make it to court and if they did, the chances of them being thrown out were great. The CIU was frequently summoned to court, but this was not an indication of a successful enforcement process, let alone prosecution.

“Moreover, unroadworthy minibus taxis were frequently impounded, but the owners pay the required fines and the vehicles were back on the road. Owners often stockpiled money specifically for this purpose.

Research also found that there were too many discrepancies in the tests conducted by various testing centres.

The research centre used a Ford Sierra to test the different centres. The Sierra had undergone moderate rust removal and a mechanical overhaul. The vehicle had 12 defects, including a cracked and rusted chassis, worn tie rod ends on the steering mechanism, worn tyre tread and brakes, and did not comply with road transport regulations.

“One centre found only 33,3 per cent of the faults and the most thorough inspection revealed 75 per cent of the defects. The differences in test results were largely due to varying inspection processes. For example, the rusted and cracked chassis was omitted from two of the inspection reports, since the vehicle undercarriage was not inspected. Similarly the worn tie rod ends were not recorded because the vehicle steering mechanism was not tested.

“Six vehicle test stations were contacted telephonically by an intermediary on behalf of the researcher. Two of the six indicated all that was required was the vehicle’s logbook and a fee in order to obtain the CRW. The remaining four suggested that the vehicle be brought into the test station for inspection,” said the report.

Uniarc also suggested that a technical working group or steering committee, with representatives from the provincial department of transport, automotive regulatory department, vehicle test station owners and vehicle industry should be formed. “This group should be responsible for reviewing all aspects relating to the vehicle testing industry,” the report said.