Drivers need to feel safe

New Zealand drivers must be starting to wonder if they are on a road to nowhere.

Many of this country’s highways and streets are dangerous, in disrepair, or in a seemingly permanent state of orange road-coned decoration. Fuel prices have skyrocketed, before settling back. The road toll is returning to worrying levels.

Now, another blow. The NZ Transport Agency confesses to a developing Warrant of Fitness scandal, revealing 10,000 New Zealanders are to be contacted and told their cars may not have been properly checked.

What a time to get such news. Summer is coming, school is winding down for the year, and the beach or the lake or the extended family in Hokitika is calling for the Great Kiwi Road Trip.

But how enjoyable will that trip be if there is a fraction of doubt in the driver’s mind about the safety of the vehicle getting them there?

Operating a motor vehicle is a personal responsibility. It requires concentration, knowledge of the laws of the road, and a certain awareness of what can go wrong.

But most drivers do not know a huge amount about the inner workings of the vehicle whose wheel they grasp. There is an implicit trust that the person who performed the safety check on that vehicle did so properly. Erode that trust, and that driver’s seat will not feel particularly comfortable.

While it is important not to overreact to this sort of news — principally, this issue is about the NZTA’s compliance function, and the agency’s ability to oversee the vehicle safety checks — it is not wrong to express serious concern.

Specific instances of accidents or injuries in New Zealand caused by dodgy warrants are rare, but there is already one confirmed fatality this year — car passenger William Bell died after a frayed seatbelt gave way — and one is too many.

The scale of the scandal is also unclear. The NZTA’s estimate of 10,000 vehicles seems rather neat, and centred largely on specific businesses in the Auckland region. Are we to blindly assume there are no problems in this part of the country?

Warrants of fitness are not things that can be dished out with a wink and a nudge. They are extremely important parts of the vehicle safety process. Frankly, it is not good enough that the NZTA, citing its approach of being more educator than enforcer, let this situation develop.

It is disheartening to think of vehicle checks glossing over the state of brakes, seatbelts and steering systems, three such crucial elements in keeping drivers — of that vehicle, plus others on the road — as safe as possible.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford at least got the message, announcing a wide-ranging review into the failure of the NZTA to carry out its regulatory responsibilities. That is due in March, and there will be much interest in its findings.

In the meantime, New Zealanders have no option but to retain a certain level of faith in their local mechanic or testing centre. The vast majority, of course, are skilled and reliable operators, not cowboys who cut corners.

AND ANOTHER THING

Another significant breakthrough for women’s sport in New Zealand.

Our marvellous football team’s efforts at the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, becoming the first New Zealand team to win a medal at a full Fifa event, deserve the utmost praise.

However, we don’t need to begin facile discussions about the Halberg Awards. That is becoming a tiresome response to any level of success on the world stage.

Let’s settle for asking New Zealand Football, such a dysfunctional organisation in recent times, how it intends to capitalise on this wonderful achievement.

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