14 Sep 2021

Dangers, 'incompetence' among truck specialist engineers

9:52 am on 14 September 2021

A multimillion-dollar investigation into truck safety inspections has uncovered some shockingly bad welding and other dangers signed off as OK by specialist engineers.

A picture of a trailer drawbeam, circled in red, that snapped off a truck near Murchison in August 2017

A picture of a trailer drawbeam, circled in red, that snapped off a truck near Murchison in August 2017 Photo: Supplied

The highly controversial investigation was sparked in 2018 when NZTA was exposed for having been too slack as the main road regulator for years.

The three-year-long investigation aimed at 'clearing house' has in turn sparked accusations from unnamed certifiers of secrecy, bullying and nitpicking by Waka Kotahi - the accusers distributed an 18-page complaint in February.

The short investigation report written by the agency lacks detail but contains strong language and photos.

'Dangerously poor'

"Amongst the file reviews and inspections were some dangerously poor certifications that showed levels of incompetence for some certifiers," the report said.

"Given the size of the vehicles involved, this posed a significant risk to safety for all road users."

It has two pages listing more than 50 "common areas of failure" by certifiers, including:

  • The wrong brake parts being used
  • jack-knifed trailer drawbars being repaired but still not straight
  • a lack of anchor points to hold loads on a trailer
  • "failure to identify fatigue-critical areas" in towing connections

However, several industry sources call the report a "whitewash" that is too flimsy to be taken seriously, and that will do nothing to ease the tensions that have flared so badly.


Certifiers are licensed by NZTA to design towbars, anchor points and the like to be strong enough, and also to inspect vehicles over 3.5 tonnes for wear, tear and failure.

Shortcomings in their work were revealed when a heavily loaded trailer snapped off a truck near Murchison, careering across the highway, in August 2017.

This also exposed how NZTA had not been keeping close watch on certifiers for years.

Eventually, safety alerts for thousands of truck trailers went out, and it cost many millions of dollars at taxpayer expense to fix them.

The agency, castigated and under pressure from multiple government reviews, called in lawyers who found 850 questionable files.

The so-called Project Orange went on to scrutinise 44 specialist engineers - a substantial chunk of the small, overworked industry - check 469 vehicle files of which only 45 percent passed, and inspect almost 200 vehicles, a third of which failed.

More than half the certifiers (55 percent, or 24) came up short, either by a little, or a lot.

The report quotes the reviewers being "disappointed" and sometimes "shocked" at the poor quality of the work.

Where safety concerns were "serious", a vehicle's certification was revoked and the owner sent a legal notice of this, the agency told RNZ.

This means the vehicle had to be fixed to be legally on the road, but the agency did not say if it checked that repairs were done.

It also faults certifiers record-keeping so poor that "in many cases made it difficult to assess the safety risk attached to certifications".

Sources told RNZ that record keeping has been too weak, a worry as defective vehicles can slip through.

The report, at just four pages long (plus five pages of appendices), was released quietly last Thursday, so quietly many of the eight industry players RNZ talked to didn't even know it was out.

None wanted to go on record over concern for their businesses.

The agency acknowledged the investigation had driven a wedge in its relationship with the industry - it has "suffered" and it now has to "rebuild trust", the report said.


While several sources suggest the findings can't be trusted, others told RNZ that some poor operators have been weeded out.

Some certifiers were consistently doing the wrong thing, and were found out, and no good operators had been forced out of the industry by Project Orange, they said.

Everyone agreed it was a flawed process.

"We recognise that the original set-up of the project and involvement of industry could have been done better," said NZTA in the report.

"We hope never to undertake a review of this magnitude again, but we've captured our learnings as a source of information for Waka Kotahi."

The critics in the complaint in February go much further, saying the misguided and unfair investigation has led some certifiers to give up (the report notes how several have retired or surrendered their licences).

They describe having little room to move once the investigation targeted them, with a sword hanging over them for months and months, and often without any detailed explanation ultimately of what they did wrong.

It was, the unhappy certifiers said, an exercise in finding fault at the coalface to deflect attention from the rule-makers who had neglected their job in years past, and now - though with more regulatory staff - were still struggling to do it properly.

"The industry remains an open hunting ground for Waka Kotahi staff whenever scapegoats are required," the complaint said.

One sore point is how a handful of certifiers were used to do the reviews, leading to accusations they might be biased.

RNZ understand these reviewers, aware of the tensions, asked NZTA to hold them to account with peer reviews, but this didn't happen. It is also understood they did not have much input to the final investigation report.

However, the agency said the reviewers had the choice not to take part, and worked alongside its own technical experts, and what they did was reviewed.

The agency said it has learned a lot, including what the industry's "critical pain points" are - high demand being met by too few, aging specialist engineers.

It is promising better training and an audit of each certifier every three years.

RNZ spoke to one who has not been audited for more than twice that long.

NZTA also said it's looking at how it can improve the rules.

However, it is in the midst of months of protest from horsetruck and campervan owners over a rule that's forced many off the road.

Also, the agency's handling of dodgy truck handbrakes is in question.

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