The Tyranny of the WOF testing regime

Rules and laws vary around the world, but car safety inspections occur at different intervals  in different locations. In the UK for example,  annual inspections known as an “MOT”, but classic cars older than 1960 are exempt.  In Australia,  rules vary by state. In the state of Victoria, including Melbourne, testing only takes place after a change of  registered ownership. In NSW state and Sydney, testing is annual and in Western Australia and Perth, there is no regular test, unless a cop pulls you over and issues a defective vehicle ticket, sometimes called a “canary” or yellow sticker.

Here in New Zealand, light vehicles (cars, trailers, caravans, campervans and small trucks) are required to have regular inspections, purportedly as a safety and road worthiness check (note that stricter rules apply to taxis, buses and large trucks). These tests used to be every 6 months, one of the world’s most regular, however the government admitted in 2013, that this was just wasting motorists money for no good reason and changed the frequency of testing to annual, for those vehicles first registered in 2000 or later. At the time these changes were announced, the MTA (a union of mechanics workshops) had kittens.  The MTA had spent a fortune on TV adverts featuring a famous racing-car driver, rallying against the proposed changes. There was a suggestion the job losses, nationwide, could amount to 2,000, but the government insisted on the changes, saying that for motorists would be saving hundreds  of millions of dollars every year. (refer to Christchurch Press “Stuff” website, article January 27, 2013).

 

However even then, the Govt phased in the law change over several years, so as to minimise disruption and less of jobs, to the huge number of neighbourhood garages and mechanics, that make their living from offering “Warrant Of Fitness” testing, and work doing the subsequently required repairs.

 

Obviously there will always be a worry that, in those cases where repair workshop facilities exist on the same premises as the WOF test, that there will be an attempt at “OVER-SERVICING” i.e. deliberately failing some components that are still quite safe, and should be considered a “pass” but where the business can make a quick buck supplying and fitting new parts.

 

There used to be at least a reasonably impartial testing option… “VTNZ”. In a city the size of Christchurch, with probably 100 separate neighbourhood mechanics offering WOF testing, there used to be 3 large VTNZ testing centres. Since the Earthquakes of 2011 some have closed.

 

However the government had long ago sold off the statutory authority of  VTNZ, under which all WOF testing is ultimately done,  to the MTA (Motor Trades Association, a union of many neighbourhood mechanics workshops).

 

Recently the MTA, flogged off the entire VTNZ to a bunch of German corporate types, to help generate money for German shareholders… they’re all laughing all the way to the bank now.

 

So VTNZ testing centres now offers a range of extra services, like oil changes and also some replacement items as well as WOF testing. Not major repairs yet at this time, mostly things like wiper blades and light-bulbs.

 

Neighbourhood mechanics offer WOF testing as agents on behalf of VTNZ, to which they pay a small fee per test. Those auto workers that have the endorsement required to be a WOF examiner, are obviously more employable, and one assumes, get more highly paid than ordinary car mechanics.

 

I have been using the same WOF testing place for about 7 years. “On The Go” (rebranded awhile back  as “Auto Super Shoppe”), located by the intersection of Hills Road and Shirley Road, Shirley.   It is several suburbs away, about a 4km drive, however it was convenient as appointments were NOT needed to be booked in advance (many places require appointments). It cost more than many other places that were much nearer to me, indeed there are 2 places offering WOF testing within 300 metres walk of here. But after going there once, I felt I got a fair and genuine test, and that they weren’t just looking to fail items unnecessarily, in order to score jobs for their own workshop.

 

Lately though, I noticed they had taken on more staff and greatly increased the size of their workshop facilities  by taking over several neighbouring light industrial units.

 

Recently I took mum’s car for it’s WOF test. Being owned and driven by a little old lady of 90, not surprisingly, this one owner, now 15 year old Suzuki hatchback with a low performance one litre engine, has travelled only 70,000 kms from new. Annually it does about 4,000km a year on average.

 

I got worried when the examining mechanic came into the office area and asked the secretary to phone up and get someone from the workshop. They both looked underneath the car as it sat atop the power-hoist.

 

They failed it on two items. One was a small piece of, decorative-only plastic, missing from the centre back-seat seat-belt. (I obtained a replacement for $10 at Fiddymont in Brougham Street, Sydenham, and the guy fitted it on the spot). The WOF test also failed, a somewhat vaguely worded  “attend to movement at LH steering rack”.

 

I replaced the rack-end, (sometimes called a ball-joint, or tie-rod end) myself, (cost about $40 and a lot of hassles running around getting the best price and then ordering and collecting the part. The old one didn’t want to let go, so using a technique I’ve heard about, I loosened off the retaining nut and refitted the locking split-pin, then did some errands amounting to about a 10km drive. The next day, using a “pickle-fork” tool I removed the old one and fitted the near rack-end.

 

Upon re-examination, the mechanic passed the seat-belt but still failed the steering. While still being vague about what was needed to get a “pass” out of these guys, I was told “it might be the steering rack itself”.

 

I went to Holland’s Suzuki, Christchurch’s main Suzuki dealer and spoke to a guy there. He said that they’d never before had a Suzuki steering rack wear below WOF standards at 70,000 km that he could recall. A handful had needed repairs from 80,000 km and upwards, but most achieved double that kmilage or more.

 

They were fully booked out for more than a week, and by this stage, the 14 days I had allowed to get a new WOF before the other one expired, had now shrunk to 4 days.

 

He referred me to a specialist workshop which actually overhauls steering units for them (it being somewhat of a specialist job. As primarily a new car dealership and servicing centre,  at Holland’s they remove and replace the steering system, but send the parts away to be refurbished on those occasions as needed).

 

I phoned the power steering folks and they could fit mum’s car in the very next day. They had the job done that same day, so I bussed over there, collected the car and went straight around and had the car re-inspected and got the new Warrant, finally !

 

While there at the power steering place, I had asked the bloke about how worn the old components were. Was a it a “GENUINE” WOF fail, or was the place being a bit of an arse ?

 

His reply was something along the lines of “yeah one bush was worn a little bit, but they were being a bit finicky to fail you on that. They were being an arse”.

 

Now just to be clear, components like bushes and bearings need to have SOME “clearance” in them, or everything would be all seized up. And just when does “clearance” become “movement amounting to unacceptable wear” is a matter for the examining mechanic to consider. There will be times when things fall close to a border-line and it is up to the examiner to make a decision one way or the other, whether something is a “pass” or a “fail”. The examiner is trained and paid to make those decisions.

 

But with a vested interest, of increased staff numbers and a much enlarged workshop, a person could be forgiven for being suspicious that some attempt at “over-servicing” wasn’t happening here. Repairs to the power steering system, as needed in this case amounted to only a tiny expenditure for parts. The vast majority of the cost was due to many hours labour required to remove, and later re-install, the steering rack assembly.

 

Now this isn’t going to put us in the poor-house, fortunately mum had some cash saved to contribute, and I chipped in a bit, so paying was no real hardship to us on this occasion.

 

However this last WOF has cost mum and I about $600 in total, and from my point of view, that’s money that mum and I have just pissed up against a wall. For that sort of money we could have bought her a set of mag wheels and a brand new stereo for her car !

 

The car doesn’t go any better having had nearly $600 spent on it, and it really isn’t any safer. I’m not disputing that there was “some” wear in that steering bush, but was it bad enough to be a WOF fail ? Given the expected 4,000km before the next annual test, would it have suddenly worn to a dangerous extent before the next WOF ? (the web portal template used  by WOF examiners, shows the car’s kmilage at previous inspections, so they know typical usage patterns for each owners vehicle).

 

Now I’m NOT telling other people where to go for their WOF testing in Christchurch, NZ, however I can say that in future, I will be taking my business, my car and any other vehicles I am responsible for, to WOF examiners at places OTHER THAN the On The Go Auto Super Shoppe in Hills Road, Shirley,  nor will I go to any other places which bear “On The Go” or “Auto Super Shoppe” branding in future.

 

You make up your own mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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