On the way to work last week, a Jeep was festooned around a lamppost at a busy junction. Its license plate suggested that at least at some point in its existence, it had belonged to a boutique car rental agency. It had no roadworthiness sticker.

What it did have was an impact fracture, apparently from a person’s head striking the windshield at force.

We’ve been all in a lather over roadworthiness since it became clear that this year’s checkup wasn’t going to be the dawdle we’ve become used to.

Sadly, what could have been a significant policy win went pear-shaped right from the start.

A complete and continuing failure to communicate the new requirements to the public caused a furore that culminated in a public apology by Public Works Roadworthiness Supervisor, Jean Juliano.

The confusion and delays are so pronounced that as this article is being written, Customs and Inland Revenue are seeking guidance from the State Law Office about how to extend the deadline for roadworthiness compliance to June.

But even that won’t suffice.

In the face of official silence, the Daily Post has decided to try to fill the void. As part of that endeavour, we published last weekend’s Roadworthiness Checklist, which is still available for free download from our website.

This week, we take a look at what a workable roadworthiness plan might look like. First, though, we need to understand the problem.

Where do we stand?

In the absence of any public data, we at the Daily Post took matters into our own hands. We hired people to conduct a sticker survey. For three hours, observers stood at the Port Vila market house and at the Manples intersection, and marked down every vehicle that passed.

In all, we counted nearly 2,000 cars and trucks. Out of that number, 1160 had a 2016 roadworthiness sticker. Shockingly, another 275 had no sticker at all.

The Road Traffic (Control) Act states bluntly, “No person shall drive any motor vehicle in respect of which there is no valid certificate”.

There doesn’t seem to be any exemption carved out for government vehicles.

But even if we discount G-plated vehicles, it’s clear that somewhere around 10% of drivers are dodging their civic responsibility to keep our roads safe. The reason could be as simple as this: because they can.

With mere weeks to go before the deadline, it’s clear that the situation we’re in can generously be described as a hot mess.

How did we get here?

COMMUNICATION

All decisions—wellintended as they were— were made more or less

unilaterally and without  reflection. How were they arrived at? We simply don’t know. The Daily Post sent a series of questions to the Minister about how and when the roadworthiness improvement plan was put in motion, and never received a reply in spite of repeated follow-ups. We spoke with senior advisors to the minister, and they didn’t shed any more light on the process.

LOGISTICS

Public Works can inspect about 40 vehicles a day when operating to the new standard. So on the three months between January 1 and March 31, they could realistically expect to certify about 3600 vehicles under optimal

conditions, and not taking any breaks for weekends or holidays. If anyone had paused to think about it, more robust inspections were impossible under the current schedule.

Even allowing a threemonth extension—the option currently under consideration by Customs and Inland Revenue—is insufficient. There are over 10,000 vehicles on the road in SHEFA province, and the vast majority will have to pass through a single inspection site.

COSTS

A sudden, unannounced and unbudgeted departure from the status quo doesn’t just put pressure on businesspeople who rely on transportation for their livelihood, it also affects government cash flow. According to our research, nearly 75% of all vehicles on the road today either have only a

2016 worthiness sticker, or have no sticker at all. How the government is going to cope with the sudden income shortfall remains to be seen.

Forming a plan

Nobody can reasonably argue against the goal of making our roads and traffic safer. But the question that needs to be answered is ‘how do we get there from here?’

There are a few considerations that come into play:

COST

The unfortunate fact is that far too many drivers have been running on our roads with vehicles that are substandard. Some of them rely on these vehicles for their livelihood. Some need to them for their household to function properly. Some have dozens or more people relying on them for ad hoc transport.

TIMING

Most everyone would be perfectly willing and able to perform repairs and necessary upgrades if they had the luxury of time. But ask a public transport driver to pull his bus or taxi off the road at short notice, and you’re guaranteeing that he and his family will face hardship. Many face a double bind: The lost income makes it impossible for them to afford the cost of repair.

SAFETY

Some vehicles are unsafe at any speed, as consumer advocate Ralph Nader famously said. Setting up annual roadblocks to fine a few drivers and crack the whip for the rest of them does little to achieve safer roads.

BUDGET

Any plan needs to be resourced properly, and anything that contributes to government revenues needs to be managed properly. One of the unconsidered effects of the current state of affairs is that the revenue arrives in government coffers on a feast-or-famine basis.

Nothing at all comes in for nine months of the year, and then it surges, becoming an increasing flood as the April 1 deadline approaches. Our modest proposal Roadworthiness should be—must become—an abiding and enduring concern, not just for Public Works, but for the whole government.

Inspections, checkpoints, and enforcement should be happening year-round, rather than in fits and starts on a schedule that’s far too easy to predict.Let’s spread the joy.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

One question that needs to be answered in detail is: just how picky can we afford to be? In Dubai, you can be fined for reasons as trivial as having a dusty vehicle. In Vanuatu, we should have lower expectations. We need to be reasonable about slowly getting the older vehicles off the road. It’s perfectly fair to base roadworthiness standards on the model year of the vehicle, and to slowly tighten the criteria over a five year period.

GIVE DRIVERS TIME TO MAKE GOOD

Likewise, it makes sense to give people time to adjust themselves to the new regime. Telling a bus driver that he can’t earn until he’s made expensive repairs is a great way to drive him out of business. Given him a 30-60 day grace period to make things right allows him to integrate the additional cost into his budget, and to soften the blow.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY! PAY UP!

There are any number of ways of assigning a renewal date for one’s license, roadworthiness inspection and operating fees. The simplest and most straightforward is a person’s birthday. Birthdays are spread evenly over the year, with modest but predictable peaks and valleys. That means you can plan and budget the number of staff and vehicle bays needed to conduct inspections, and you can budget the revenues as a year-long stream, rather than a periodic deluge.

MAKE THE STICKER STICKY

Enforcement of moving and parking violations is absurdly spotty—almost to a degree where anyone facing a spot fine could contest on grounds of natural justice: Why am I being targeted when nobody else is? Roadworthiness is a year-round concern, and enforcement should be constant and consistent, too.

A proper patrol and inspection regime isn’t practical under current circumstance… but if we had the revenues to justify it, it could easily become practicable. First off, if the roughly 10% of vehicles that appear to be dodging roadworthiness checks entirely were brought in from the cold, we could add millions of vatu to the annual budget.

Revenues from moving and parking violations would surely provide at least sufficient revenue to defray the cost of enforcement. Technically, with modern technology being what it is, it would be cheap and costeffective to create a simple mobile app that assessed fines electronically, and made them payable on or before the driver’s birthday, storing them on Custom’s internal databases.

This would make payment inescapable. It would also make roadside shakedowns impossible.

Proposal, not policy

We want to emphasise that we’re not touting for a specific outcome. We’re simply trying to show, that with a little forethought, data gathering, and consideration of the consequences of a given course of action, it is possible to turn this particular sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Even with the stop-gap measures being rushed into effect, the negative  impacts of these new roadworthiness standards have clearly not been measured, or taken into consideration at all, apparently.

We’ve worked for so long in an information- and communications-poor environment that we appear to have forgotten how important they are to decision-making. We need to end that bad habit, or we’ll end up drowned in our own good intentions

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