NZ is where dirty and dangerous cars go to die

Updated

A mid 1980s Ford Falcon parked outside a state house in Porirua. Photo by Lynn Grieveson.

New Zealand has one of the oldest, most emissions-intensive and unsafe car fleets in the developed world. The Government wants to change that, Thomas Coughlan reports.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter has suggested the Government might take steps to prevent the importation of cars deemed too dirty and unsafe to be on the road, and may encourage the scrapping of old cars.

The national fleet of cars now has an average age of 14.2 years, nearly twice that of the UK where the average age is 7.7 years. Average carbon emissions per kilometre travelled stopped falling around 2012. Eight of New Zealand's 10 most popular new vehicle registrations are now either double cab utes or SUVs, with the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux the most popular.

One in five vehicles is now over 20 years old. These cars tend to be less safe and have lower emissions standards than younger vehicles. They are often driven by younger, inexperienced drivers, increasing their risk of death or serious injury in an accident. 

Road safety is a key priority for the Government. Last week’s Government Policy Statement on transport centred around reducing fatalities. New Zealand’s road toll has been climbing steadily for the past five years, outpacing even the rapid increase in population. In 2011 it stood at 284, by 2017 it had increased to 380. This year alone, 103 people have died on the roads.

The Government has given itself the target of zero road deaths by 2020, as it aims to reduce the road toll. This is based on a Swedish target that helped the country vastly reduce its road toll over 20 years. On Monday Genter told a road safety summit 255 lives might have been saved in 2017 if New Zealand had the same rate of road fatalities per head of population as Sweden.

Deadly old cars

The link between ageing vehicles and road fatalities is well-known, but very little has been done in New Zealand to combat it. 

A Ministry of Transport report from 2016 analysed a sample of fatal crashes to better understand the causes of fatalities. It found a vehicle’s age had a profound impact on the likelihood of a fatality resulting from a crash. 

It also found average age of the vehicle in which a fatality occurred was almost twice the age of the other car in the crash and up to 18 percent of fatalities could have been avoided if victims’ vehicles had been equipped with crash mitigation technologies, often absent from older vehicles. 

Glen-Marie Burns of the Ministry of Transport told Newsroom that for every 100 crashes an extra 2.2 people are expected to be killed or seriously injured in a 1996 vehicle than had they been driving a 2005 vehicle. 

Import standards

New Zealand’s ageing fleet is in many ways a result of an import regime that puts few restrictions on imported cars. 

“We’ve got standards around safety, but it’s been a long time since any real change has been put in place,” said Greig Epps from the MTA. 

New Zealand relies on import standards to keep the age of its fleet down. As standards become more rigorous, the age of the vehicles that meets them decreases. 

Current emissions standards effectively prohibit the importation of most cars that were made before 2004.

The Government is also phasing in a requirement to have Electronic Stability Controls. This will be fully in place by 2020, when almost all used and new cars will be required to have ESC. 

Julie Anne Genter said at a road safety conference on Monday that import standards were of prime concern.

“New Zealand and Australia are two of the only countries in the OECD that don’t have fuel economy standards and Australia is about to bring them in,” Genter said. 

“We have a much less fuel efficient fleet, to the point where even car manufacturers sell us versions of cars that are less fuel efficient than the same car they would sell in the UK,” she said. 

But there are loopholes. Cars over 20 years old are not required to meet certain standards around safety.

Mark Stockdale of the AA said this exemption was mainly to allow enthusiasts to import classic cars, and the number of cars over 20 years old added to the fleet each year was small.

But Epps said a report by economic consultancy BERL for MTA found 4,083 cars built between 1992 and 1997 were imported last year. Over half of them were diesels that would not meet minimum emissions or frontal impact standards. They included mostly Toyota Hilux and Toyota Landcruisers.

Just 2,922 pure electric vehicles were imported last year.

Market forces

New Zealand faces two main difficulties when it comes to improving the age and safety of its fleet. The first is we are heavily reliant on countries like Japan (where cars are manufactured and sold new) to improve their vehicle standards first. 

The other challenge is the Government does not want to introduce standards that make purchasing a newer model so expensive that drivers will simply hold on to their older model.

“We need to make sure that we have a fair transition where we don’t create perverse incentives like people holding on to older cars for longer,” said Genter. 

New Zealand’s fleet is highly sensitive to changes in Japan, the source of most of our used vehicles. Import regulations tend to follow changes in the dynamics of the Japanese fleet to avoid completely cutting the country off from a supply of relatively cheap vehicles. 

The Japanese Shaken, equivalent to our WOF, makes it substantially more expensive to continue running a car after seven or eight years on the road. Regulators here tend to look at standards that might be imposed seven or eight years after a safety feature has become popular or ubiquitous in Japan. Unless more New Zealanders can afford to buy new or late model cars, it is likely we will always have a fleet age dictated by the age of the Japanese fleet and be behind on safety features. 

But it can take time to catch up. The Electronic Stability Controls which will become mandatory for nearly all second-hand imports in 2020 have been available on the mass market since 1998. 

New standards or incentives

One standard New Zealand might look at in the future is Autonomous Emergency Breaking, which is designed to improve breaking speeds by using an automated system with a better reaction time than a human driver. Stockdale said New Zealand should watch the AEB’s growth in Japan to decide when to introduced it as a mandatory standard here. 

But Genter may choose to bolster the current standards-based regime with other policies designed to improve vehicle safety.

Genter signalled on Monday she might look at reintroducing a government "vehicle scrappage" scheme to encourage motorists to scrap their old cars and purchase new ones. With around 945,887 vehicles manufactured in the 1990s on the roads, this might be just as effective as import restrictions at reducing the age of the fleet. 

However Epps said scrappage schemes could be prohibitively expensive and often do not offer a great enough incentive to ditch an old car for something new. 

A more effective solution might be improving access to safety information. Access to vehicle safety ratings is currently difficult to access and other safety information can be inconsistent and difficult to find. Both Epps and Stockdale said criticised the current level of access to safety information for consumers. Better access to this information might encourage motorists to buy better, safer cars.

Clarifies from earlier version to specify Genter is focused on car safety and emission, rather than purely age, although there is often a link between age, emissions and safety.