Truck group backs fiery complaint to Transport Minister accusing NZTA of technical incompetence

The HVE committee is calling for a "serious review".
The HVE committee is calling for a "serious review". Photo credit: Getty

By Phil Pennington of RNZ

A revolt is escalating against the Transport Agency in its role as the watchdog keeping trucks safe on the road.

The country's 100 or so heavy vehicle certifying engineers, who design and approve trucks and trailers and modifications to them, have backed a fiery complaint to the Transport Minister.

The original 18-page complaint laid anonymously last month accuses the agency of bias, technical incompetence and scapegoating engineers at will.

Now the engineers industry group, called the HVE committee, is calling for a "serious review".

"HVE had no part in producing or reviewing the [complaint] document," the HVE has told its 100 or so members nationwide by email, after surveying them about the complaint.

"However, the committee and many in the wider heavy vehicle certification sector are aware of most of its outlined issues.

"HVE supports a serious review of the items raised in the document, and looks forward to a response from Waka Kotahi, with practical solutions."

This move shifts the anonymous complaint into a mainstream problem for the agency.

The agency said it aimed to respond to the original complaint shortly, but had not yet heard from the engineers' group about its view of it - though they had had discussions about the overall revamp of regulatory activities in the last 18 months.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) did not address RNZ's request for an interview.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said in a statement there had already been a comprehensive review of Waka Kotahi's regulatory stewardship.

"Since then, the agency is working to implement all of the recommendations of the review - I will continue to monitor their progress.

"My expectation is Waka Kotahi will work closely with the industry to address any concerns."

Stresses across industry

The depth of the industry's discontent is reflected both in the original complaint last month - "the industry remains an open hunting ground for Waka Kotahi staff whenever scapegoats are required", it said - and what certifiers have told RNZ since it came out:

"It addresses the systemic, structural failings from the top and that are seen right throughout," said one, who RNZ agreed not to name.

"NZTA have promoted quite a poisonous regime."

Another said: "It's a good industry with some very competent people, and I like working in it, but it's being, in my view, killed by bureaucrats."

The dozen industry players RNZ has talked to - none of them would agree to be named - backed the complaint, or most of it, except for one in the vehicle inspection industry, who said certifiers whose record keeping was not up to scratch were the ones complaining.

Another vehicle inspector said the agency was running such unfair audits at their end of the industry that theirs and others' companies were being "destroyed".

A manufacturing certifier said a growing problem was that the engineers could not get to jobs fast enough, and this was leading to some truckers fixing cracked trailers themselves, so that the vehicle would pass its Certificate of Fitness.

"Without a doubt, people who know the system know they face headaches, so they sort these things out themselves so they don't get knocked back."

One solution would be to give manufacturing certifiers with a good track record, greater scope to do repairs - instead of narrowing the scope, as had been happening, they said.

These concerns echo what the industry was telling RNZ in 2019 - when one trucker said people were "petrified" of NZTA and its audits - in the wake of the agency trying to fix years of regulatory failings when it had been too slack.

'55-60 hour weeks'

As for certifying engineers, the chair of the HVE committee Malcolm Allan said they were under increasing strain, and inconsistent mechanical rules from the agency only added to it.

"We've been advocating for better defined codes," Allan said.

"Then you could run training courses based on one standard, and audit people against that known standard."

The original complaint said vagueness around standards left room for agency staff - or the private-industry reviewers (themselves certifying engineers) it used - to go after certifiers unfairly.

When NZTA revoked a certifier's licence to operate, the HVE asked for that decision to be justified, Allan said.

"Our industry is focused on ensuring safety of vehicles on the roads."

But certifiers were having to work 55 to 60 hours a week to keep up, as vehicle inspectors increasingly nervous of falling foul of NZTA sent a bigger load of minor jobs their way, he said.

A survey of members had found quite a few wanted to retire, and the industry did not have the recruits to plug an existing shortfall of 25 or so certifiers.

Waka Kotahi knew about this and was trying to respond, he said.

As for other concerns in the complaint, "we've raised these concerns with Waka Kotahi. We've been in meetings with them about these sorts of things. We've surveyed our members and provided feedback.

"Our expectation would be that they would review that and seriously consider the items in there - they may find that there are some things they can improve on," Allan said.


But there is some scepticism about the HVE response.

"HVE now is backing the opinion of criticising NZTA - while they were supporting the process the Transport Agency has followed for a very long time," said one certifier.

"I would call it hypocrisy."

The original complaint accused NZTA of scapegoating many certifiers - especially anyone who spoke up against it - while favouring a small number. Allan said it was a difficult situation in such a small industry, when the reviewers knew the businesses they were reviewing.

The HVE had played no part in appointing reviewers, and the agency had not identified who it used for this job, he added.

The agency has just appointed Kane Patena, who headed up the regulatory arm, to the top job of Director of Land Transport, a whole new role that the review into NZTA's regulatory failings recommended be established.

Patena, who was a partner at law firm Meredith Connell for several years, had been "integral" to raising the regulatory performance in the last 18 months, NZTA said in a statement to RNZ.