HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY
EXCEPT HERE IN NEW ZEALAND , IT WOULD SEEM
Those of you who have been around longer than since last Tuesday may recall the Wahine disaster of 1968. In fact, April 10, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the tragedy in which 53 people lost their lives. Of particular relevance to this article (in part) was the fact that the Wahine carried a number of vehicles — purportedly 60; her capacity was 200. Some time after the sinking, some of these vehicles were salvaged, in preparation for an attempt at salvaging the ship, and were sold off. Their registration certificates (once known as ‘ownership papers’) were stamped as ‘water damaged’. Back then, all motor registration records were kept at the Motor Registration Centre in Palmerston North. It was a known fact that some unscrupulous buyers of these cars simply applied for a ‘ duplicate set’ of papers for said damaged vehicles, and a fresh registration certificate was provided — albeit without the water-damage stamp! Circumnavigated A similar situation occurred after the devastating 1984 Invercargill floods. With water levels in some cases being waist deep or higher, many cars were inundated with water. Again, the practice was to stamp the registration certificate with ‘water damage’ — although how this was done for certificates that were being held by the respective owners, I’ve no idea. Once again, this ‘protection’ was able to be circumnavigated by simply requesting a duplicate set of documents! Part of the problem with these Invercargill waterdamaged cars was that there was sewage in the flood waters, and I guess that, further down the track, you wouldn’t have needed to sight a water-damaged set of papers to alert you to the fact that you were looking at an ex-invercargill car! (A different perspective on the expression ‘taking your breath away’?). Needless to say, it was only the dishonest sellers who saw fit to try to hoodwink the buying public. Anyone’s guess It would be nice to be able to say that we have moved on from those days, and, with the computerization of the motor registration records, such frauds shouldn’t happen — but they do. Determined fraudsters will find ways to get around whatever protections put in place by the authorities.
Moving ahead a few years and recalling the magnitude-nine earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan of 2011, there were huge
numbers of water-damaged cars, and some that were close to the Fukushima nuclear power station that went belly-up also had radiation problems. Thus, the authorities here in New Zealand demanded that any vehicles being imported from the area be tested for radiation. It would have been nice to think that this was all that was required, but it wasn’t. Many vehicles were simply relocated elsewhere in Japan where there were no requirements for radiation testing. How many subsequently arrived here is anyone’s guess, but if you bought a used import anytime post that tsunami and have been feeling a bit crook of late, I’d be high-tailing it off to the doctors. Remember that Auckland is the port of choice for vehicle importers because vehicle inspections are, more often than not, cursory at best — if at all.
Now, if that wasn’t enough to contend with, our Aussie neighbours have found a place to relocate their damaged/written-off vehicles, which is, of course, over the ditch — here! To be fair, I should clarify that some of our Aussie neighbours are involved in moving damaged/written-off cars to New Zealand. It seems that ‘statutory write-off’ cars have been finding their way here under the radar and on-sold to unsuspecting buyers. In March 2017, Cyclone Debbie devastated Eastern Australia, specifically in and around New South Wales. Insurance companies wrote off many water-damaged cars. These days, with all that computer stuff that tells the driver when to change gear and when the seat belts should lock up, water can play havoc with car electrics, so much so that vehicle safety is significantly compromised.
Here in New Zealand, when a vehicle is sold through a motor vehicle trader, a Consumer Information Notice (CIN) is required to be physically displayed on the vehicle (or a photograph of the same in any online auction listing). This includes imports from overseas.
However, it would seem that the fact that a vehicle might have suffered water damage or accident damage while it was overseas does not always find its way onto the CIN. Those of you with a few years’ experience will recall that, in the late 1980s, when Japanese imports started to kick in in a big way, many Mazda RX-7S were imported in two halves (supposedly as ‘parts cars’) then welded back together and sold to gullible buyers. Many Nissan 300ZXS were also imported with significant frontal damage and repaired before being sold.
The authorities tried to close this gap with increased and more detailed border inspections, and many imports (particularly from the US) were flagged for structural damage and/or rust issues. This meant that, often, significant work was required to bring the vehicle up to certification standard prior to being registered and allowed on New Zealand roads. While structural damage and rust are usually relatively easy for a border inspector to spot (underseal will be removed if it is suspected that it might be covering up a botched repair job), water damage is much harder to determine, as the vehicle may well have been dried out prior to import, and a decent strong air freshener could disguise any remnants of a damp smell.
Despite the fact that the New Zealand Transport Authority ( NZTA) said as far back as 2015 that about 60 per cent of second-hand imports from Australia were written off, the problem didn’t seem to have been resolved. Earlier, in 2013, the NZTA required all Australian write-off imports to have a Personal Properties Securities Register check. And, to protect buyers further, even if a write-off import were repaired and subsequently certified as suitable for use on New Zealand roads, that vehicle would still remain on NZTA’S list of border-identified damaged vehicles.
Then, as recently as September 2016, the NZTA changed the requirements for the replacement of electronic and pyrotechnic safety components in waterdamaged vehicles. All water-damaged light vehicles now required the full replacement of all electronic and pyrotechnic safety components such as airbags, sensors, seatbelts, and seatbelt pre-tensioners, and wiring. Previously, only those items below the water line were required to be replaced.
The NZTA said that the safe repair of water damage required all affected electronic and pyrotechnic safety components to be replaced to guard against components failing or not functioning properly in the event of a crash. It went on to say that, when water-damaged vehicles are repaired properly, they are safe, and that they had confidence in appointed repair certifiers to safely implement the previous requirements. The NZTA also stated that determining the extent of water damage had become difficult to achieve with certainty when vehicles had been groomed prior to being presented to repair certifiers. There have been cases of people masking or misrepresenting waterdamage levels in order to reduce the extent and cost of replacement required.
As always, despite the NZTA’S best efforts, some noddy managed to get the new requirement, which might have eroded seller mark-ups, watered down (no pun intended), and, as a consequence, the new requirement applied only to vehicles imported post September 2016. Vehicles ‘on the water’ had to be inspected by October 2016 and then only had to comply with the earlier criteria (below-the-water-line damage). In the five years up to 2016, some 3500 vehicles imported to New Zealand were insurance write-offs in other countries. Most were Australian imports damaged by hail or floods.
In an ideal world, if everyone were honest, none of this would be necessary, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Harking back to the old clocked-odometers fraud, digital odometers were tamper-proof — until someone developed a computer programme that ‘wound back’ the odometer reading before the vehicle was presented for odometer verification as to its accuracy.
So, if you are contemplating buying another vehicle, and it is an import that takes your fancy, I would recommend finding out the vehicle’s identification number ( VIN) then going to the NZTA’S website to check it out against the 545-page (and growing) list of damaged imported vehicles — which the NZTA knows of! For Japanese imports, you must have the vehicle manufacturer’s chassis number. Or, you can wait until the new minister has ‘ had a discussion’ with the relevant authorities about the problem. Yeah, right!
Finally, remember that old adage, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’. Caveat emptor applies in all vehicle purchases, as ‘ honesty is the best policy’ has long since disappeared into the ether.
To be fair, I should clarify that some of our Aussie neighbours are involved in moving damaged/written-off cars to New Zealand. It seems that ‘statutory write-off’ cars have been finding their way here under the radar and on-sold to unsuspecting buyers.