23 Sep 2020

Transport Agency moves to stamp out dodgy seatbelt repairs

9:09 am on 23 September 2020

Vehicle warrant of fitness inspectors alarmed at illegal repairs of seatbelts have forced action from authorities.


File photo. Photo: 123RF

The Transport Agency has rushed in more powers to catch out the dodgy belts - but scepticism remains whether it can, or wants to, tackle the cowboys.

"It has come to our attention that there is concern in the industry that vehicles are being passed for WoF and CoF with unauthorised re-webbed seatbelts," the agency said in an advisory to the industry.

A black market in seatbelt repairs has grown up around confusion, even among inspectors of cars and trucks, over who can legally do what.

Doug Pflaum has seen it all at the most dangerous end of the market.

"It still is uncontrolled to a certain point, because there are people that will try and put seatbelts together with staples or backyard home sewing machines," Pflaum said.

"I've seen little bolts going through them, and using fishing line.

"So there's quite a range of inventive, but very dangerous ways of repairing them."

'Price and nothing else'

Motorists were ignorant, or worse, Pflaum said.

"They're usually interested in the price and nothing else."

Pflaum runs the only company in the country that's allowed to repair seatbelt webbing, Autosafe of Christchurch.

It won official approval only three weeks ago, eight months after passing an NZTA trial - a delay that frustrated vehicle inspectors who'd been left in the dark, desperate for clear rules.

But Autosafe faces competition from some sophisticated cheats able to hoodwink the garages.

"Inspectors, generally, anything that looks unsafe, they'll reject," Pflaum said.

"But some of these backyard sort of places were just putting new webbing on, and the old label back on.

"And it was hard for an inspector to actually pick up whether it was a replacement seatbelt or one from a wrecker."

A source of the problems is an old rule in the vehicle inspection manual, called the Virm, that forbids anyone but a seatbelt manufacturer or their authorised agent from repairing webbing - and this country has no such companies (though one Australian company APV, has been able to do repairs).

Into that market vacuum have moved cowboys, kept afloat by motorists who - faced with needing a whole new belt costing $800 or a legit repair at about $200 - have opted instead to shop on the cheap.

"A lot of people have in the past believed that they have got it rewebbed by an authorised company and it's fine to do, when it was not," said Graeme Swan, of the Motor Trade Association.

It had been made worse by cheap seatbelt parts available online from overseas, he said.

Doug Pflaum shows a properly re-webbed seatbelt.

Doug Pflaum shows a properly re-webbed seatbelt. Photo: Supplied

The Transport Agency moved in mid-2019 to set up a trial of Autosafe, to make sure its computerised sewing machines and test rigs were up to it, before sanctioning the firm to do repairs.

Autosafe passed the trial in January. Yet it did not get its letter of exemption from the old Virm rule, until 31 August.

That delay, compounding industry confusion dating much further back, infuriated some inspectors who demanded action.

"We received concerns from the industry about unauthorised repairs at the start of last week," the agency said in a statement to RNZ.

It rushed out a technical bulletin and made the rule change "by the end of the week, to re-emphasise inspectors' requirements around seatbelt re-webbing".

"This is a short timeframe and is a swift step to maintain the integrity of the vehicle inspection process."

Now, for a repaired seatbelt to be accepted by an inspector it must:

  • be recorded against the vehicle's licence plate on Autosafe's website
  • carry a tag with a reweb exemption number on it

This only applied to Autosafe but "further companies will be added to this list as they are approved,"the agency said.

The agency apologised to inspectors for the rush.

"We apologise for the lack of notification to this quickly developing issue."

It has caught the Motor Trade Association by surprise.

"It's a little concerning this all happened very, very quickly," manager of the repair sector Graeme Swan said.

"Usually we'd have weeks to months to prepare for something like this.

"So we're now having to scramble and let people know that things are changing."

He was now contacting MTA's 1800 member garages.

The irony was MTA had been pushing for years for an overall update of the whole Virm, that dated from 1998.

"But it isn't on the government's rules programme for another couple of years," Swan said.

Some inspectors told RNZ it was about time the agency took action, and Swan agreed the seatbelt rule change would help.

"Now it's black and white who can do webbing repairs," he said.

The repair was required to meet the same strength as a new, compliant seatbelt, the agency said.

The new move "offers vehicle owners with a safer alternative to seeking replacement seatbelt assemblies from a wrecker or a repair from an inferior, unsafe and uncertified repairer".

Roger Davis of Seatbelt Solutions in Auckland sends belts for repair to Autosafe.

He is not blaming the Transport Agency.

"This has been a grey area in the rules for quite some time, and it's just a case of educating warrant of fitness places and even people like us, what we can and can't do," Davis said.

"It just makes it transparent and safer when you know the sewing has been done under the NZTA authorisation and testing programme."

Pflaum is sceptical of how much further authorities might go beyond issuing the new rule - which he expected might have a small impact on the black market - to actually pursuing dodgy repairers.

"Particularly in Auckland, I think there's some people that do it full time," he said.

"I'm pretty sure that NZTA probably know a fair number of who they are.

"But I'm not sure if they think it's their job or ... why they haven't sort of put an end to it."

Swan said the agency could only investigate inspectors that it appointed, not repairers, and questioned if the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment should police them.

The ministry told RNZ no, and referred us to the Commerce Commission and NZTA.

The Commerce Commission said it had "no specific responsibility regarding seatbelt repairs".

"We enforce the Fair Trading Act 1986 which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct and false, misleading or unsubstantiated representations in trade."

The agency is urging inspectors to take photos of any non-compliant seatbelt they find, and report it.

Most such repairs "are done in a way to hide that they are re-webbed".

It gave clues to spotting illegal repairs:

  • incorrectly fitted hardware such as buckles on webbing that looks new
  • new webbing, or webbing that looks newer than the other seatbelts in the vehicle, with the same compliance tags as the original seat belts
  • the same identification tags as the original belts with a different stitch pattern
  • a compliance label that is different to the other seatbelts that is not from a typical manufacturer
  • no compliance labels fitted on new webbing or a new seatbelt.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs