MOT Workshop 31 – The Mechanics of Disaster

When carefully designed safety systems are dismantled or neutralised, disaster will surely follow.

It might be viewed as a small miracle, with over 33 million cars on UK roads, each travelling on average 12,000 miles per year (19,312 kilometres), that during 2009 there were ‘only’ 2,222 road deaths, with just over 222,000 road casualties, writes Martin Shippey…

According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK has one of the lowest road death rates in the EU, at 5.4 per 100,000 population, lower than the US at 14.4 per 100,000 and Australia at 7.8 per 100,000 (2006 figures).

But countries such as Iceland (3.8 per 100,000) Japan and Switzerland (4.7 per 100,000) are lower still (World Health Organisation [WHO] figures for the year 2000).

In fact, road death and injury numbers are still significant – that is 2,222 deaths per year in the UK. According to the WHO’s World Report on Road Traffic Injury Protection, motor vehicle collisions are the sixth most common cause of death in developed nations. They also say “Road traffic injuries are a major but neglected public health challenge that requires concerted efforts for effective and sustainable prevention. Of all the systems with which people have to deal every day, road traffic systems are the most complex and the most dangerous…”

WHO’s World Report on Road Traffic Injury Protection

The WHO also lists, among other items, ‘vehicle factors’ such as ‘braking, handling and maintenance’ among the ‘main risk factors for road traffic injuries’.

The fact that road deaths and injury rates have been falling in the UK is no ‘accident’. Modern cars are safer, both in terms of their safety system design; braking performance, improved visibility for the driver, superior tyre design and construction (and better roads, junctions and street furniture), steering and suspension and so on, and also in their ‘collision-tolerance’ – internally protecting the driver and passengers with seat belts, air bags and crumple-zones, and to a certain extent protecting pedestrians with bonnets designed to minimise injury.

And while there’s no doubt that modern engineers are designing cars which need servicing less and less frequently, there is still no such thing as an ‘everlasting brake pad’ or an ‘everlasting tyre’, much less chip-proof windscreens, self-adjusting tracking, self-aligning headlamps, self-healing brake and fuel pipes… you get the picture; these items wear out or are damaged during normal use, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes suddenly.

So it just has to be recognised that no matter how efficient a car’s brakes are when they have adequate lining on the brake pads, their performance plummets catastrophically when that lining finally gives out. The trusting car driver relies on his, or her, friendly service engineer to inform him, or her, that a vital safety item on the family’s trusty and faithful carriage is nearing the end of its useful life, and should shortly be replaced.

In the normal course of events, most of the time, that is what has happened – hence, perhaps, the steadily improving accident figures. But these are tough times – many, many things are competing for the family’s hard-earned pounds, and recent industry research is indicating that car servicing is one of the things which, to put it bluntly, is being skimped.

The hard-pressed motorist, with a car coming up to 50,000 miles is now much more likely to think ‘she’s running fine at the moment, no point in taking her in and possibly end up with a £250 bill with the holidays coming up, then the anniversary, then Joshua’s birthday’

50 years ago: The MOT is born

With an ever-increasing number of cars on the tiny but growing UK road system around 50 years ago, Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport in those days, decided that if carnage was to be avoided, cars should suffer a periodic inspection, to make sure they were in a fit state to be driven safely on the roads. In those days there were even ‘Public Information’ films on the BBC which admonished Britain’s pioneer drivers for not dipping their headlights, or for being a ‘road-hog’.

Initially the MOT was very simple; a look at brakes, lights and steering, and in those days, only after a car was ten years old. However, the MOT did its job, and accidents reduced dramatically. Everyone accepted the MOT Test, even when it was introduced for cars after three years, and the scope was extended to include, nowadays, over 150 different checks. Indeed the word itself is now ubiquitous; the acronym ‘MOT’ has become a byword for ‘periodic general inspection’, “…give your health an MOT” is well understood, as is having a “…financial MOT”. It is a success story.

The MOT was originally carefully devised to ensure that the basic safety systems of all vehicles over a certain age would be tested to a minimum level before being allowed back onto the roads. Further, every driver could be sure that all other road users had passed the same test, and therefore be reasonably confident that other drivers could be relied upon to stop, or turn, or indeed dip their headlights, in a safe and timely manner.

Now, however, it seems the MOT has become so successful that there are those in government who say it is costing too much. “Cars are very reliable nowadays, so MOT Testing after a car is three years old and then every year, is too much”.

Cutting back on safety inspections? Have we heard that before somewhere? Is that a good idea? With over two thousand people being killed and two hundred thousand being injured on the roads every year? Hello?

Let’s take a look at how safety inspection works.

Safety is no accident

Where else do safety checks play such a vital and successful part in the lives of people in the modern world?

Certainly in air travel. Air travel is statistically so safe (deaths per 100 million car passenger kilometres: 0.7; deaths per 100 million air transport passenger kilometres: .035) – probably because of the fastidious safety and servicing regimes imposed on it, that it has been seriously suggested that less money should be spent on servicing aeroplanes so that it becomes cheaper to fly, increasing the number of air passengers, and, of course, the number of air transport accident fatalities, yes; but, as people choose to fly cheaply rather than drive, an overall reduction in the number of deaths – well, that’s the theory.

So, a safety success story there, then; rigorous standards, fastidiously applied; very, very few accidents. It’s funny, but somehow I can’t see politicians lining up in the lobbies to have aeroplane servicing deregulated. Not too many votes there perhaps. And I dare say your average politician avails himself (or herself) of the sumptuous services of the airline industry more often than the average eight-year-old-Ford Fiesta driver. That might be bringing the risk a little too close to home, mightn’t it?

But perhaps that’s being cynical.

Let’s look at something a little more topical, and a little further up the food chain from cars.

The Oil Industry 

It’s a dirty, dangerous business. But without oil the world’s major economies would collapse, and it hardly needs to be said, there is a lot of money in it.

Because there is a lot of money in it, it attracts risk-takers. Men, and women, who know about making assets ‘sweat’, who return massive profits for the company and for the shareholders in turn. And these people get paid as the risks they take pay off. Sometimes the risks don’t pay off, but overall, they are judged on the balance.

But not everyone in the oil industry is paid a fortune to take risks. Some are there to do a job, and they are paid accordingly. If a well fails, they get paid, if it’s a gusher, they get paid just the same, or perhaps a bonus; not in the millions, but a bit extra, to reflect the extra effort, or for taking a small risk, as a diver, for example.

On the other hand, those at the top, while they might be taking a massive financial risk (albeit with someone else’s money), are never taking any physical risk. If a project is going a bit slowly, or hits a snag, they can call a meeting and put pressure on the team involved to get rid of the slack, make the time up and get back on schedule, or suffer the consequences!

Luckily there are safety systems to protect those workers, carefully designed by the manufacturer’s specialist engineers, who are experienced in pumping oil and gas and who know what happens to gas under pressure, and how to handle it and how to prevent escapes and explosions. They design fail-safe systems, and they specify inspection and servicing intervals, and testing equipment, emergency procedures, reporting systems… so that all possible risk is taken out of the system, and it is safe for the people operating it.

And generally it works as it was designed – gas and oil is pumped safely. If a component fails, the safety systems kick in, production stops until it is fixed, and then it’s back to work.

But when, owing to the very fact that there hasn’t been a spectacular accident for years, someone with an eye on the balance sheet decides that too much money and time is being spent on safety – “It’s holding back production, we’re already losing money, we can’t stay shut down for another week… it’ll hold… just do it!”. That’s when disasters happen.

A good call? 

When Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise over-rides Scotty’s “…the engines’ll never take it cap’n” protestations and insists on full power to escape the aliens, everything wobbles a bit, they run from one side of the set to the other a few times, but the engines hold, they escape, everything turns out right. The captain looks good, his reputation is intact, everyone is grateful. In real life, the engines blow, and eleven men in the engine room are killed.

Or to put it another way, eleven men on an oil rig are killed, and the Gulf of Mexico gets 60,000 barrels of crude oil spewed all over its nature reserve coastline every day for three months. Not such a good call.

(It makes one wonder if, in real life, the safety systems so vital to the lives of those who work on the rigs would be so starved of resources and funding if the people who controlled those resources were forced to have their offices situated on the rigs themselves. How much would you like to cut the safety budget by now, Mr high-risk Chief Executive?).

Or, to put it back into the road safety context, on the roads an additional 400 people will be killed, and several thousand will be injured, every year, if the MOT is changed, as proposed; to let cars be driven on the roads for a further year (or 12,000 miles) after they are three years old, in spite of the fact that 37 per cent of cars fail an MOT after three years, and then only every two years after that.

It may be that there are politicians, or civil servants, who are of the opinion that there are not enough deaths on the roads; “…we can afford a few more – too much money is being spent on safety”. But those deaths will just be ‘road users’ so it doesn’t matter, does it?

Government research clearly indicates that the number of deaths on the road will indeed increase as a result of extending the MOT inspection periods. Not only that, the same research also comes to the conclusion that the annual cost to society of those deaths and accidents exceeds the amount saved, by £887 million per year!

(By the way, that doesn’t include the cost of unemployment of MOT Testing Station staff, or VAT and tax revenues on lost servicing, repairs and parts – put that cost up to £1.4 billion).

The recommendation to extend the periods of inspection for the MOT flies in the face of this research. What on earth are they thinking?

Recent history seems to indicate that cutting back on safety generally is a potentially disastrous policy; it has been disastrous for BP, as a company, perhaps not so disastrous for Chief Executive Tony Hayward personally, but certainly catastrophic not only for those who lost their lives in the explosion, but their families and loved ones.

Yet someone in government seems hell-bent on forcing the changes to the MOT through. To what end we can’t imagine – we believe they are misguided and misinformed, or possibly both, and should be identified and made to explain their reasoning before there is carnage on the roads, with no real benefit whatsoever.

So what can you do? 

We have created a form for you to register your objection to the 4.2.2 proposal, to implore the Government to leave the MOT unchanged and help keep the UK’s road accident statistics in their current place – among the best in the world.

Finally, explain the dangers to your friends and families, so they can register their protest and create a groundswell, which, we hope, will put an end to this dangerous and expensive idea.

Note: Following a successful campaign by the combined industry lobby group ProMOTe, in January 2012 Transport Minister Justine Greening announced “I have decided that I am not going to carry out further work in relation to relaxing the first test date or the frequency of testing”, effectively bringing an end to the threat to road safety and the MOT industry. MIS

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