Vehicle Height Regulations

About this Item
SpeakersStoner Mr Andrew; Hornery Ms Sonia; Maguire Mr Daryl; Besseling Mr Peter
BusinessBusiness of the House

Page: 18156

Mr ANDREW STONER (Oxley—Leader of The Nationals) [11.45 a.m.]: I move:

      That this House calls on the Minister for Transport to immediately rule out imposing harsh and irrational vehicle height regulations on law-abiding four wheel drivers, caravan towers and car enthusiasts.

Yesterday I sought precedence to debate this motion. I was pleased that the Leader of the House agreed to allow the motion to be debated today. I sought precedence because this is a burning issue within the fraternities that I mentioned yesterday—that is, four-wheel drive owners, caravan towers, rural motorists, farmers, car enthusiasts, cab drivers and, in particular, those who operate taxis for disabled customers. In July this year the then Minister for Roads announced new blanket regulations to prohibit vehicle owners from lowering or raising any vehicle by 50 millimetres or more. Anyone with a knowledge of vehicles, in particular, automotive engineers, would tell us that to apply a blanket 50-millimetre restriction across the wide range of different vehicle types is a nonsense because some vehicles are already significantly higher, they have different suspensions, and they have been put together differently.

I approached this issue after giving some thought to different vehicle types and their uses. At the end of the day we all want better vehicle safety. It appears as though these regulations were introduced with the objective of gaining media attention or headline capturing. We were told that the laws were supposedly aimed at car hoons and that it was to stop, "young hoons putting their lives or the lives of others at risk". Mr Daley, the former Minister for Roads, made that statement in a press release dated 16 July 2009. These regulations apply to all motorists who raise or lower their vehicle suspensions, regardless of whether they are a so-called hoon and regardless of the type of vehicle. Literally thousands of drivers around our State resent being called hoons by implication simply because they modify their vehicle suspensions. In many cases these modifications are sought to make their vehicles safer. These blanket regulations, which could be likened to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, will capture all drivers and classify them as hoons.

All motorists—including four-wheel drivers, people towing caravans, farmers driving vehicles on their properties and even wheelchair accessible taxis—have been caught by these new regulations and, therefore, fall under the Minister's definition of "hoons". Under Labor's regulations these so-called hoons now have to get their vehicles approved by Roads and Traffic Authority engineers at a cost of around $1,000 or face substantial fines. Considering the large number of motorists affected by these regulations, one would have hoped that the Government would properly consult those who were to be most affected by the changes: representatives of the automotive industry.
Certainly many people who have contacted me—including highly qualified and experienced automotive engineers, mechanics, et cetera—tell me that these regulations will cause hardship to vehicle owners who seek to modify their vehicles mostly for safety purposes, that they would be unenforceable and that, in fact, in this and other jurisdictions effective national standards governing the raising and lowering of vehicle suspensions were already in place. But no consultation whatsoever was undertaken. It seemed that this was policy on the run aimed at capturing a headline and, as a result, people rightly are upset with the implementation of these regulations. No consultation whatsoever was undertaken.

The Opposition pursued this issue. During budget estimates hearings last week the outgoing Minister for Roads admitted that he did not undertake consultation with the affected stakeholders prior to his announcement of these new regulations. When pressed on the issue, the Director of the Roads and Traffic Authority Centre for Road Safety, Dr Soames Job, could not recall which stakeholder groups were consulted nor the name of the committee that conducted the consultation on these harsh blanket regulations. If the Minister or his department had taken the time to talk to four-wheel drive owners, caravan owners, car enthusiasts and other motorists, not to mention automotive engineers, he would have realised that they are overwhelmingly responsible drivers, not hoons, and that in many cases these modifications actually improve the safety of the vehicles in question.

It is little wonder that with such appalling lack of consultation on these regulations, along with the ensuing community backlash, the former Minister for Roads decided to defer implementing these regulations. He issued another media release saying that he was going to seek further consultation. That was a bit rich, given that no consultation occurred in the first place. It is beyond me how further consultation can be undertaken when none was done at all. This whole affair shows how out of touch the Rees Labor Government has become. It continues to make up policy on the run that affects the lives of good people. I have mentioned before in this place that the lifestyle of four-wheel drive owners is important to those people and also to the regions where they partake in their activities. They enjoy the great outdoors and stimulate local economies, but they have been swept up in all of these changes and labelled hoons—it is a disgrace. While this type of policy may make for good headlines, sadly it ends up inconveniencing thousands of responsible drivers and even affecting the economy in our State.

Already more than 3,500 people from across the State have rejected Labor's irresponsible and irrational hoon announcement by logging on to and signing The Nationals and Liberals online petition. I anticipate that number will grow whilst ever this Government continues to hedge on the issue and not admit it got it wrong and repeal these regulations. The four-wheel drive, caravan towing and car enthusiast community has spoken loudly and clearly on the issue. They do not want to see their families and friends labelled as hoons by an out of touch Labor Government focused on chasing headlines rather than fixing our State. As I mentioned before, these regulations are unenforceable and unworkable, they cause hardship to individual drivers and, frankly, they are insulting by labelling many responsible drivers as hoons.

The motion should be supported so that the new Minister for Roads, Mr Campbell, cancels the regulations and does not simply put the whole issue into a holding basket. I anticipate that the Government will try to amend this motion to neuter its effect, as happened to the last motion I moved in this place. If that happens, certainly the constituency to which I referred will be upset that the Government again has dodged the issue instead of listening to legitimate concerns.

Ms SONIA HORNERY (Wallsend—Parliamentary Secretary) [11.55 a.m.]: I move:
      That the motion be amended by deleting all words after "That" with a view to inserting instead:
      this House supports moves by the Government to continue its engagement with four-wheel driving and car enthusiast groups to ensure that the standards for vehicle suspension modifications achieve the best balance between the needs of legitimate users of modified vehicles and the safety of other road users.

We on this side of the House take road safety very seriously. I am advised that the Roads and Traffic Authority Vehicle Standards Information 50—VSI 50—Raising and Lowering vehicles information sheet is currently being considered by the Minister for Transport. The purpose of the information sheet is to ensure that vehicle modifications are carried out with road user safety in mind. Vehicles that have been raised or lowered by more than 50 millimetres may pose a significant risk to the driver, his or her passengers and other road users. The intention is not to impose harsh and irrational vehicle height regulations in New South Wales, as has been suggested.

I am advised that the safety of raised or lowered vehicles may be reduced in the following areas: stability, road handling and brake performance; driver's field of view; exposing tyres and chassis components; interaction with other vehicles in a crash; impact on pedestrians and other vulnerable road users; dazzling other road users with raised headlights; and affecting electronic stability control. The industry has come to the Government in good faith to discuss some of the proposals. Implementation of Vehicle Standards Information 50 has been put on hold to enable further consultation and procedures to be developed to facilitate its introduction.

The Roads and Traffic Authority has met with key stakeholders in the four-wheel drive industry, user groups and suspension manufacturers. Stakeholders include Pedders Suspensions, King Springs, Eibach Suspension Technology, the Australian Automobile Aftermarket Association, the Motor Traders Association of New South Wales, Four Wheel Drive NSW and ACT, the NRMA and the Australian Street Rod Federation. All of these stakeholders generally support the position being adopted by the Roads and Traffic Authority to ensure that dangerously modified vehicles are not allowed on our roads. We are listening to their concerns and making good progress, but the Government's position is clear: The safety of all road users must be the paramount consideration.

Vehicle Standards Information 50 brings the New South Wales requirements for the raising and lowering of vehicles into line with other jurisdictions through the National Code of Practice for Light Vehicle Modifications that was developed jointly by all the States and Territories and is currently under review by a national committee. VSI 50 also proposes to explicitly prohibit unsafe practices, such as chassis notching, that weaken a vehicle structure and that are used only to achieve an illegal modification, such as lowering the vehicle beyond the limits specified in road transport legislation and the associated Australian Design Rules.

Four-wheel-drive user groups have undertaken to develop a set of criteria with the Roads and Traffic Authority [RTA] that will form the basis for exemptions to VSI 50. In addition, the suspension component suppliers have agreed to provide more comprehensive information that will be made available at the point of sale, thereby ensuring that persons undertaking their own modifications will use the most appropriate components for their vehicles. The Roads and Traffic Authority has stated that vehicles that are intended to be used by disabled persons will be granted an exemption to VSI 50.

VSI 50 aims to strengthen road safety requirements while still permitting legitimate vehicle modifications to be made. The Government will continue to consult with industry on this issue to achieve a common-sense balance between the needs of legitimate users of modified vehicles and the safety of other road users. Let us all encourage best practice and good driver behaviour.

Mr DARYL MAGUIRE (Wagga Wagga) [12.01 p.m.]: I support the motion moved by the Leader of The Nationals—that the House calls on the Minister for Transport to immediately rule out imposing harsh and irrational vehicle regulations on law-abiding four-wheel-drive caravan towers and car enthusiasts. The motion has flushed out of the Government an explanation for a new regulation pertaining to the modification of vehicle suspension. The Leader of The Nationals moved the motion because the whole issue was handled very badly by the previous Minister for Transport: announcements were made that caused the community to fear the blanket implementation of a regulation affecting a great number of modified motor vehicles.
An in-depth examination of the motor vehicle industry reveals the enormous impacts of this regulation upon suppliers of four-wheel-drive motor vehicle suspensions, springs and other mechanical devices. Given those enormous impacts on the highly technical automotive industry, the Leader of The Nationals moved the motion to flush out on the record the Government's explanation of exactly what it intended to achieve. The amendment moved by the Parliamentary Secretary suggests that the Government will undertake a process of consultation, but that is what should have occurred in the first place. Instead of insulting the intelligence of people involved in the automotive industry, people who own four-wheel-drive motor vehicles, people who own cars that are modified for towing and people who own high-performance motor vehicles by lumping them in with hoons and people who carry out grossly illegal and very dangerous modifications, the Government should have undertaken a consultation program. The Government's approach to implementation of this regulation, to say the least, is unwise.
The need for this debate is another example of the Government adopting a knee-jerk reaction to an issue instead of embarking on a carefully thought-out process involving public consultation and proper implementation. It seems that a public consultation campaign will be undertaken, but at the wrong stage; in other words, the Government has closed the gate after the horse has bolted. All members of the House would have received correspondence from middle-aged people who have purchased motor vehicles that suddenly will become illegal when this regulation is invoked. My electorate office's email and facsimile facilities have been running hot, and I am sure that is also the case for many members of the Labor Party.
We need only take a cursory glance at the many automotive magazines in circulation to see that often modifications to four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary to increase a vehicle's stability when carrying heavy loads or when towing caravans, trailers, equipment or heavy machinery. Modifications are not undertaken to make a vehicle unstable. To improve the performance of ordinary motor vehicles, the suspension sometimes needs to be adjusted. In engineering terms, a 50-millimetre adjustment is not a great deal of adjustment. No-one would disagree that modification that qualifies for an engineering certificate and is signed off by a qualified mechanic improves the performance of a motor vehicle.
The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that the reason for the regulation is to reduce the incidence of headlights dazzling drivers of oncoming vehicles as a result of vehicles being raised or lowered. But what has the Roads and Traffic Authority been doing? Currently headlights that are not properly aligned are illegal. The headlights of a stock-standard motor vehicle must be aligned properly, and the alignment is checked during inspections that must be carried out prior to motor vehicles being registered or when registration is to be renewed. Safety checks are already in place under the requirements of law when motorists pay for their green slip and register their motor vehicles.

The issue is out of control. Someone has not been doing their job. I point the finger squarely at the Minister for Transport and the Roads and Traffic Authority for failing to ensure compliance with regulations. That is the nub of the issue. If compliance with already existing regulations had been properly monitored, there would be no need for a regulation that has upset law-abiding citizens who have always done the right thing but who now find themselves suddenly being accused of criminal behaviour simply because they drive a motor vehicle that has undergone some modification to meet particular circumstances. Those who wish to merely enjoy a nomadic drive to Broken Hill or Uluru, take an occasional drive to the country, need to take a load somewhere or simply enjoy motoring should not be penalised. The incompetent Minister who approved the regulation without consultation should apologise.

Mr PETER BESSELING (Port Macquarie) [12.06 p.m.]: It is with pleasure that I join in this debate. I made representations to the former Minister for Roads regarding new regulations that will restrict suspension modifications. The issue can be best summed up in a letter from Col Leggo of Port Macquarie that I forwarded to the Minister for Roads. The letter states:
      On Thursday 16 July 2009 I received notification of a press release from The Hon Michael Daley, Minister for Roads, regarding new NSW regulations to restrict suspension lift modifications. It would appear that under the guise of attempting to hamper modifications undertaken by 'car hoons' the NSW Government has outlined changes in regulations that will cause havoc for me as a driver on NSW roads with minor, currently legal suspension modifications. Many of the modifications outlined in a press release that will now require engineering approval, are legal in every other state in Australia, making this 'NSW only' scenario unworkable. I have spoken with other local companies and with my industry association and I understand that they were not consulted regarding this radical change in policy direction.

      Apparently under these tough new rules, car owners will be limited to raising or lowering their suspension by no more than 5 centimetres from August 1 2009, and all modifications would need engineering approval. The attempt at a populist anti hoon measure will not work and will actually affect responsible drivers. It's an absurd notion that introducing compulsory engineering inspections will [in] any way deter an illegal street racer [from] their ambition to speed at the cost of safety. In my experience, the hoon community does not legally lower their vehicles - if you were to inspect these vehicles you would note that their preferred method of lowering the vehicle is to cut crudely the suspension springs or coils. This dangerous and illegal backyard practice is conducted outside of industry standards and government regulation. The now regulated NSW compulsory engineering inspection will only apply to those interested in observing the law and will not have an impact on backyard modifications.

      Branding all people that modify their vehicles "car hoons" is totally unacceptable and ignores the many legitimate reasons for vehicle modification. The RTA has falsely assumed that raising or lowering suspension is only about the appearance of the vehicle and that only the 'hoon' community wants to undertake this modification. Sensible, law abiding drivers concerned about safety will alter the suspension for specific purposes. Raising the suspension height can increase the load bearing capacity. Similarly, some rural drivers require a greater clearance to protect the undercarriage from road hazards. Lowering the vehicle can produce better safe handling. There are currently thousands of vehicles on NSW roads with legally modified suspension. In our experience, drivers find that replacement of the suspension improves handling and produces a safer vehicle when cornering on Australian semi-rural roads.

New South Wales roads are now full of imported vehicles just like every other State in Australia. We can no longer assume that these vehicles are in any way appropriate for our roads—we no longer have a car park full of Australian-made Commodores and Falcons. Vehicles can invariably be configured inadequately for drivers needs and responsible owners will often seek to have the car modified to improve safety and handling. All of these ordinary, non-hoon, responsible drivers will now be penalised for this knee-jerk policy announcement based on false assumptions.

      In particular I am concerned that the industry was not consulted—
I understand that that has changed, and I commend the Government for working towards that. The letter further states:
      This is an unreasonable decision based on false assumptions and not subject to industry consultation. It is clear that the Minister has received very poor advice on this issue and I strongly urge you to make representation to him to delay the introduction of this VSI until the RTA has conducted adequate consultation with industry and other stakeholders.

Many people in my area enjoy four-wheel driving and their ability to visit the beautiful area of the mid North Coast while towing their caravans and the like. They have their vehicle suspensions modified to do this in a safe and effective manner. I urge the Government to continue to consult with industry and anyone who has a history of involvement in either the caravan business or the four-wheel drive industry. The Government must provide a better, clearer direction for people so that we maintain safety standards while at the same time we do not disadvantage those people who are trying to do the right thing.

      Mr ANDREW STONER (Oxley—Leader of The Nationals) [12.11 p.m.], in reply: I thank the member for Wallsend, the member for Wagga Wagga and the member for Port Macquarie for their contributions to the debate. As I predicted, the Government has moved an amendment that effectively neuters the original motion, which is a shame. In a sense, the amendment is an admission that the Government got it wrong in the first place. The amendment is farcical in that it states that the Government will "continue its engagement with the four-wheel driving and car enthusiast groups". There was never any engagement in the first place, and that is the reason we are debating this motion today. How can the Government continue something that did not occur in the first place? The amendment stops a long way short of the apology the Government should be giving to all those responsible motorists who it has labelled as hoons and who it has threatened with excessive red tape, fines and hardship.
Predictably, the Government speaker waffled on about road safety. I said earlier that we all want improved road safety. The member ignored the fact that national standards are already in place—the Australian design regulations [ADR]—and there is a pink slip process. The vehicle height regulation is simply additional red tape that has been ill thought out and will cost New South Wales motorists dearly. Indeed, in some cases it could lead to reduced road safety. Most modifications to four-wheel drive vehicles are done with safety in mind. By fitting heavy duty raised springs and matching shock absorbers, four-wheel drive vehicles are much safer to drive when fully laden and the vehicle does not wander on the road. I have received correspondence from an experienced and well-regarded automotive engineer, who pointed out that raising a vehicle within the limits of safe and predictable handling within the ADR-prescribed limits for heights, including the ADR-prescribed maximum height for headlights, effectively limits any adverse reduction in vision of pedestrians and cyclists close to the vehicle while improving vision of people and objects further away.
He pointed out also that for vehicles manufactured in 1994 and later, ADR 8/01 prescribes a primary vision area and that legal raising of such vehicles is limited by the ability to maintain compliance with that requirement. An ADR-compliant headlight installed at a height within the prescribed limits of the ADRs and adjusted in accordance with those rules is legal in New South Wales according to the Road Transport (Vehicle Registration) Regulation 2007. Clearly, road safety was not the true justification for these regulations; it was about chasing a headline, which is a great shame. It has been pointed out to me that some police, ambulance and fire vehicles have suspension modifications in the form of heavy duty suspension but most would not be raised or lowered more than one-third of the original suspension clearance, that is, less than 50 millimetres. Under the proposed changes, all of the above vehicles would need to be engineer certified in New South Wales while not requiring certification in any other jurisdiction. The working party will apparently consider the possibility of suspensions within the 50-millimetre limit being self-certified to reduce the impact of that proposal.
Also, volunteer emergency services, such as the State Emergency Service, often modify vehicles. In some cases these vehicles will be raised beyond 50 millimetres in order to operate in difficult terrain. This regulation, as ill thought out as it was, has caught all sorts of people, including volunteer emergency service workers and the vehicles they use. It has also been pointed out to me that many older vehicles are lowered as part of modernising the suspension and improving the vehicle dynamics, including handling and braking. Such vehicles usually have other safety features improved at the same time, such as fitting seatbelts, a collapsible steering column, windscreen washers and demister, and improved windscreen wipers. Encouraging such vehicles to continue to be driven without these modifications would be to discourage safety improvements.
There is ample evidence that the regulations were ill thought out. There was zero consultation. Basically, the Government has bungled the handling of this matter. As I said, the motion will be neutered by the amendment, which refers to the Government continuing to engage with four-wheel drive and car enthusiast groups. However, motorists want an apology from the Government and the withdrawal of these regulations. That is what should occur today; that is what my motion called for. I have this advice for the Government: If it wants to stamp out hoons, it must better enforce the existing regulations. That means more police addressing the issue of hoons. Get the law-breakers by all means but do not label responsible drivers as hoons.

Question—That the amendment be agreed to—put and resolved in the affirmative.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion as amended agreed to.