The NZ Transport Agency dismissed a written report from one of its senior engineers warning that millions of dollars worth of wheelchair-access vehicles imported from Italy for use by the Accident Compensation Commission were unsafe and should not be allowed on NZ roads until they were repaired.
Tauranga mechanical engineer Bill Cassidy – a long-time NZTA heavy vehicle certifier – listed seven major faults with the heavily modified vehicles, questioning their life expectancy and saying they could risk life and limb because of “poor workmanship.”
But the NZTA said Cassidy’s findings didn’t justify “further enquiry” because the vehicles had already “been certified in New Zealand under the Low Volume Vehicle Code”(LVV). The code is road-worthiness approval issued by NZTA-appointed LVV certifiers supported and trained by the Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association (LVVTA), a blood relative of the NZTA set up in the late 1990s to certify ‘hobby’ vehicles like hot-rods.
WHAT ENGINEER CASSIDY FOUND …
In the six-plus years since Cassidy’s report – November 10, 2008 – the 90 Italian-modified vehicles have needed on-going repairs at a cost independent engineers have put at hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of the $NZ8.34 million ACC paid for them. Carterton company Braiden International did many of the repairs under a government agency contract, company spokesperson Rochelle Williams confirmed.
The vehicles – 50 long- and 40 short-wheelbase Kia Carnival vans – were converted in 2007-08 by Italian company KIVI and bought by the ACC for its disabled clients. The ACC had cancelled an agreement with its NZ supplier of such vehicles. The long-wheelbase Italian models each cost $NZ94,825 and the short-wheelbase $NZ89,599. KIVI, based near Turin, is a long-time supplier of vehicles for European health agencies.
Cassidy’s findings included:
- a modified rear suspension assembly that would (and later did) fracture under stress
- a relocated spare wheel that could break loose from its makeshift mounting and become a “missile” inside the cabin – “a lethal situation”
- a replacement floor “not made to accepted engineering practice” and made of steel so “flexible” it could “distort upwards into the passenger compartment” in an accident
- an airbag system whose inspection module had been “modified” to show it was working when it wasn’t
- seatbelts anchored to the floor in a way that didn’t comply with the Low Volume Vehicle Code
ACC COMPLAINS OF CASSIDY’S ‘CONDUCT’ …
Cassidy sent his report to ACC executive John Payne. On November 19, 2008, Cassidy received a reply – not from Payne but NZTA response team manager Dave Robson. Robson wrote that the NZTA had received a complaint from the ACC “about your conduct as a NZTA-appointed heavy vehicle certifier.”
Robson went on … “Further I have read your deed of appointment and have been unable to locate a clause which authorises you to specifically enquire into Low Volume Vehicle certification issues or to demand information from vehicle modifiers or any other persons in relation to Low Volume vehicles.”
Addressing Cassidy’s criticisms of the Italian vehicles Robson wrote, in part … “the technical department within the NZ Transport Agency have not found that your specific complaints justify further enquiry as they are satisfied that vehicle does not currently present a risk to land transport safety.”
Cassidy soon fired back, saying Robson had “jumped to conclusions without ascertaining the facts.” He said he had a contract with the ACC to inspect the ‘engineering’ issues of the vehicles in production, “as a professional engineer, not as a certifier.”
Cassidy further told Robson that ACC executive Gail Kettle had asked him early in August, 2008, if he would like to see one of the Italian-modified Kias. Robson later replied, saying “it is not my intent to enter into a debate over the issue.”
ACC THOUGHT ITALIAN VEHICLE WAS ‘BEE’S KNEES’ …
Cassidy had had many dealings with Kettle, then the ACC purchasing executive for health and provider relationships. Cassidy had previously inspected vehicles modified for the ACC by Waikato firm Vehicle Adaption Services (VAS). Kettle cancelled the ACC agreement with VAS after a recall over a reported seatbelt malfunction and chose Italian firm KIVI as the preferred new supplier. Kettle is now the Earthquake Commission’s general manager customer and claims.
The vehicle Kettle arranged for Cassidy to see was trucked from Wellington to Tauranga, where it was met by an ACC occupational therapist. “Gail Kettle wanted me to check it out because she thought it was the bee’s knees,” Cassidy said. It was late in the evening when he met the therapist at an ACC’s client house. “The therapist asked me about towbars, seatbelts and the vehicle in general. Only a brief inspection by torchlight was possible. I asked if I could inspect it properly in the morning light but she said she had to drive it to Auckland that night.”
What Cassidy had seen in a few minutes concerned him, he said. “For a start the heavily modified rear end wasn’t strong enough to accommodate a towbar.” He said he met with Kettle weeks later on another matter. “I hinted that I wasn’t happy with what I had seen with the Italian vehicles. She was in a hurry to get to a meeting and that was the last conversation I had with her,” said Cassidy.
IDENTICAL VEHICLE HAD ‘REMEDIAL’ WORK DONE ON IT …
Over the next few weeks Cassidy arranged to inspect an identical vehicle in use by a family in Te Awamutu. He said the family told him the vehicle had just had ‘remedial’ work done on it in Wellington. On November 6, 2008, Cassidy checked out the Italian-modified van at the VAS workshop, in Matangi, near Cambridge.
With him, he said, were NZTA reviewer Bruce Adams (confirmed later by Robson’s letter to Cassidy) and LVVTA certifier Neal Miller. Days later Cassidy sent his report to the ACC’s Payne. He said that whatever ‘remedial’ work had been done on the vehicle in Wellington, the faults he identified were still present. His was the only signature on the letter.
In December, 2012, the NZTA’s sidekick the LVVTA issued a recall on its website – www.ivvta.org.nz – for the long-wheelbase vans to repair “fracturing to trailing arms” in the rear suspension. The recall mentioned “incorrect suspension geometry and poor workmanship involved in the modification process.” The LVVTA said Braiden International would do the repairs. The repairs weren’t completed until late 2013, early 2014, said Braiden’s Rochelle Williams.
The “fracturing” the LVVTA said needed fixing was exactly what Cassidy had said would happen back in 2008. He identified “incorrect suspension geometry” and “poor workmanship” back then too. Cassidy is one of the NZTA’s most reputable professional engineers. Why wasn’t his 2008 warning to the NZTA and ACC acted on? Why wasn’t it passed to the LVVTA, which is indirectly responsible for certifying wheelchair-access vehicles.
NZTA CERTIFIER’S TIME FRAME WAS ‘VERY LIMITED’ …
LVVTA chief Tony Johnson said he never received a copy of Cassidy’s 2008 letter. “Had we been made aware of the issues identified by Mr Cassidy we certainly would have become involved earlier,” he said.
Johnson said the LVVTA didn’t certify the vehicles. “Nor do we certify any vehicles. Modified vehicles are inspected and approved by independent LVV certifiers who are appointed by the NZTA. LVVTA’s role is to provide technical support and training to the LVV certifiers.”
He said he understood the certifier’s time frame to inspect the vehicles was “very limited.” “I also believe he would have based some of his decisions that the vehicles were sound after reviewing the vehicles’ European type-approval certification, which was presented to the ACC team at the time of inspection,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he agreed that there were problems with the vehicles’ design and construction. “But in balance they would have been very difficult for (the certifier) to identify in isolation. It’s easier to identify problems with the luxury of several heads, and several hours, particularly when someone is bringing problems to your attention.”
But engineer Cassidy identified on his own, in a few minutes, in a Tauranga driveway, in the dark, with a torch, that the modified vehicles for which the ACC had paid $8.34 million didn’t stack up.
Weeks later, with the NZTA’s Adams and LVV certifier Miller in tow, Cassidy inspected an identical example, this time for three or four hours, in a garage workshop, on and off a hoist. Days later, the NZTA rejected Cassidy’s report that the vehicles were badly flawed. Since then the NZ taxpayer has had to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix what the NZTA said in 2008 wasn’t a problem.