22 Nov 2018

NZTA 'failed everyone' over fatality - chairperson

8:45 pm on 22 November 2018

The NZ Transport Agency has "failed everyone" over dodgy warrants of fitness exposed by a fatal car crash, according to the chairperson of its own board.

The belt buckle that broke in the fatal crash that claimed the life of William Bell.

The belt buckle that broke in the fatal crash that claimed the life of William Bell. Photo: Supplied

But there was no talk of the agency's chief executive standing down, despite the industry saying it had been raising the alarm for years about vehicle inspectors cutting corners.

The agency has admitted knowing since 2011 that Dargaville Diesel Specialists was failing to do critical checks for WOFs, but has been taking an educational approach, instead of enforcing the safety rules.

The garage was only suspended in August, and now was on track to have its authority completely revoked, after investigations of a fatal car crash in January showed a frayed front seatbelt had failed. Frontseat passenger William Ball died from injuries after the crash.

The owners of nearly 2000 vehicles given warrants by the Dargaville garage are now having to get them rechecked

"This is a pretty horrific event and as Fergus has said, NZTA has let everyone down," said Michael Stiassny, brought in last April to chair the agency's board.

He called in top lawyers last month to take control of road safety compliance off the agency.

But he was not asking chief executive Fergus Gammie to step down.

"We're not discussing whether Fergus is accountable or not. What we are discussing is that we are having an independent review and we will see what that review says.

"The responsibility and culpability of people in the organisation, and outside the organisation, is clearly open to debate."

The Dargaville case would not be the end of revelations about the regulatory failings, Mr Stiassny told RNZ.

"We've made it abundantly clear there will be more."

Three other areas of vehicle inspections have already been shown to be compromised.

Steps taken to fix the deficiencies would be done properly, rather than quickly, he said.

The fixes are costing the taxpayer millions of dollars, which will cover almost 1500 truck de-certifications in the South Island, a bevy of top lawyers, and now warrant of fitness re-checks on vehicles in the Dargaville area.

Years of warnings about going soft on road safety had been ignored, said Motor Industry Association chief executive David Crawford.

"It's been very difficult to get attention previously at a senior management and board level," he said.

"I gather that has all changed - the question is why did we wait so long for it to change."

He was briefed when he took the job in 2013 that truck certifications were a real problem, but had hit a "brick wall" raising this with the government or officials.

"The reply I got was, well if the system ain't broke you don't need to fix it; and I said by the time you find out that's its broke ... it's too late. And that's the situation we're in now," he said, recalling an exchange with a top Transport Agency official a couple of years ago.

Instead of any tightening up, they had witnessed technical experts like engineers being stripped out of the agency in multiple restructurings as recently as since Mr Gammie arrived in 2016.

Safety had not been prioritised by Mr Gammie, but was seen as a sideline, Mr Crawford said.

The agency, in a January 2017 briefing to the incoming associate transport minister in charge of road safety, said its new strategy and operating model combined an "outcome focus" with a "track record of rigourous performance monitoring".

At the time it had a single auditor nationwide to cover all heavy vehicle certifiers.

"Road and rail safety is a foundation activity for us and is something we must get right," the briefing said.

"The upward trend in the road toll concerns us greatly and reaffirms our commitment to implementing the safe system approach in New Zealand ... to lessen the burden of unnecessary road trauma."

The Motor Industry Association believed a few "outliers" were to blame for poor inspections, though Mr Crawford acknowledged that even if only 10 percent of garages were cowboys, that amounted to hundreds of thousands of possibly flawed inspections.

Truck certification was a bigger problem than cars, he said - but again conceded that without hard data or a reliable official audit system, it was impossible to gauge.

RNZ asked the Transport Agency to specify what measures it had taken since it was alerted by the Dargaville case several months ago, in order to gauge how many garages were cheating on WOFs.

So far, Mr Gammie has said: "We are acting very quickly on this to ensure that this cannot happen again."

It took eight months since the crash for the agency to suspend the Dargaville garage.

Mr Gammie has avoided the question of whether he should resign, by saying he was intent on fixing the longstanding regulatory weaknesses .

"This was going on many years before I arrived, but we have actually now taken action to change it."

He had personally apologised to Mr Ball's family. He added there were several other factors behind the accident, including the driver and the garage's actions.

"I don't like saying 'I told you so' but we just really want the ... agency to get on top of this issue. It is critically important that consumers have confidence in the WOF system," said Mr Crawford.

"And I don't think at the moment we have that confidence."

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