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Safe to Drive: Is Roadworthy Good Enough?

Roadworthiness is a hot potato in South African road safety and the problem starts with the numbers. For the past 20-odd years, the official government figure has been that between 7% and 9% of crashes directly arise from vehicle failures. However, there doesn't seem to be a clear connection between this figure and the number of unroadworthy vehicles on the roads. For instance, in 2011, Collins Letsoalo, Acting CEO of the Road Traffic Management Corporation, claimed that as many as three-quarters of South Africa's vehicles were unroadworthy. Then there is feedback from the field -  it has been repeatedly noted that when a random selection of heavy vehicles is pulled off the road and put through roadworthiness checked, up to half of vehicles fail. In one notable case in the Western Cape a couple of years ago, 25 heavy vehicles were randomly selected for testing during a roadworthiness operation, and all were declared unroadworthy.

Unroadworthiness is clearly widespread, so why, relatively speaking, does it account for such a small percentage of crashes? This paradox is a perennial head-scratcher, and one of the answers lies in the problem of trying to define 'roadworthiness'. There are some roadworthiness faults which are mere technical infringements. A cracked indicator lens or large stone chip in the upper left-hand corner of the windscreen is unlikely to kill anyone, and nor is a faded number plate or incorrectly positioned licence disc. At the other end of the scale, there are roadworthiness faults that can wipe out anyone in the vicinity, such as damaged tyres, chassis cracks on heavy vehicles, or worn suspension components. The snag is that all vehicle faults, whether lethal or merely technical, get lumped under the broad heading of 'roadworthiness', making it difficult to assess the actual level of danger involved. 

So if roadworthiness is such a broad and complex subject, what should the average motorist be worried about when it comes to maintaining their vehicle? The Automobile Association of South Africa's biggest concern is what we call “nominal roadworthiness”. This is where a vehicle complies with all requirements to pass a roadworthiness test but is still dangerous to drive. How could this be, you might ask? Surely a 'roadworthy' vehicle is safe? There are three issues. The first is that a vehicle might be borderline in a certain respect, but still adequate to pass the test. For example, it might have shock absorbers that are just adequate to be declared roadworthy, but will be shot 5,000 km later. Ditto for a vehicle that has a set of cheap pirate brake pads fitted – it may pass the roadworthiness test, but will it protect lives when it comes to the crunch?

The second issue is that the roadworthiness test has to balance safety against practicality. It is not practical to dismantle each vehicle's braking system and individually pressure test the wheel brake hoses, but the reality is that these hoses deteriorate over time and might be incapable of handling the brake pressure of an emergency stop after 15 or 20 years. The roadworthiness test examines the basics of roadworthiness, but it's by no means an exhaustive safety check. 

The third problem is the march of vehicle technology. In today's modern vehicles, items such as airbags, ABS brakes and stability control are regarded as essential – many companies are implementing policies which state that their employees may not drive a vehicle that doesn't have ABS and two airbags at minimum. But if your vehicle arrives at a roadworthiness test with warning lights on in the cluster saying that the ABS, stability control and airbags don't work, it'll still pass roadworthy if nothing else is wrong. And that is the reality of the test – it has been overtaken by technology which it isn't required to test for. Overseas studies have shown that vehicles with stability control are up to 30% less likely to crash than those without it. Wouldn't it make sense to insist that if a vehicle has stability it should be in working condition?

So, despite the proposals on the horizon that vehicles over ten years old will have to go through a roadworthiness test every two years (which the AA welcomes), certain nagging questions remain: does 'roadworthy' mean safe? Does 'unroadworthy' mean dangerous? And does the roadworthiness test yield the standards of safety a modern vehicle is capable of? The answers are 'not always', 'not always' and 'not always'. And that  means the motorist is more responsible for roadworthiness than ever before.

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