Is the government doing enough to halt fitment of defective wheels?
The issue of safety checks on commercial vehicle wheels achieved government attention at the end of March, as the Labour member of parliament for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins sought to raise the concerns of his constituent John Ellis, managing director of Motor Wheel Service (which is keen to raise the profile of this safety issue), with the Department for Transport (DfT). On 29 March, Goggins formalised the discussions in a Private Members’ Debate at Westminster Hall in conversation with the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, Mike Penning, who is the current government minister for roads. MWS estimates that over 10,000 second hand and take-off wheels entered the market in 2009, of which the large majority were sold by companies who do not possess the technical abilities or examination procedures to ascertain the history and fatigue of a wheel.
The ascendency of this issue to the Houses of Parliament has taken some time – Goggins, Ellis and public relations representative Matt Wells met with Penning on 9 November, 2010 to discuss the safety issues surrounding the regulation – or the lack thereof – of the sale and fitment of wheels on the heavy commercial vehicle aftermarket. Ellis’s stance on the matter was explained to Tyres & Accessories in an interview with the MWS MD in March; he contends that the principle of wheels entering the market in the way that they are leaves great potential for problems along a distribution chain that lacks the education and inspection criteria to regulate the safety of the products fitted to heavy vehicles. While some may see the commercial interests of Ellis coming into play here, he insists that it is not the activity of moving wheels into the marketplace that is the issue; it is rather an issue of “keeping the chain of supply uncompromised”, or “proving the chain”.
In response to this original meeting, the DfT referred to figures provided by the Vehicle & Operator Services Agency (VOSA), which have identified “23 accidents involving heavy commercial vehicles and 103 cases with recorded wheel defects from data spanning 15 years.” The DfT also reviewed wheel faults revealed by roadside inspections: in “197,000 roadside examinations (covering approximately 1,000,000 wheels)” it “identified 60 incidences of defective/fractured wheels, a 0.006 per cent failure rate”; hardly a figure that indicates a widespread problem, according to Penning and the DfT.
Yet, according to Ellis and Wells, these figures are far from proof that no problem exists, but are rather indicative of the real current problem, which is the lack of safety checks that are fit for purpose. Wells says that the 0.006 per cent failure rate suggests that “the wheels are not being checked, and should the inspector decide to look at the wheels, it is nothing more than a cursory visual inspection as compared to a proper examination.” While the Private Members’ Debate served mostly to rehearse these arguments again, the DfT’s reversion to what MWS representatives contend are figures gained through inappropriate data collection is at the root of the current dissatisfaction with the government’s current disinclination to change wheel safety protocols. One small step forward, which Goggins requested, is that Penning said in the debate that a senior official at VOSA has been assigned to wheel complaints, though Penning also emphasised the ability of local authorities to encourage greater checks on commercial vehicle wheels.
The current impasse is understandable; the lack of available evidence of a fault makes it harder for the DfT to commit extra resources to solve a problem that its inspections say does not exist. However, it is not difficult to see the potential for disaster with an under-regulated supply chain for an essential safety product. The same financial squeeze that could lead HGV operators to seek wheels entering the market via what could be politely termed “alternative” routes – including take-offs, or second-hand wheels procured from who-knows-where – is perhaps limiting the government’s desire to be proactive on the issue.
Perhaps the issue could be resolved by a European Union directive in its European Road Safety 2011-2020 report, which “calls on the Member States to monitor imported accessories and spare parts more closely in order to ensure… they meet stringent European consumer protection standards”, another fact Wells has raised with the DfT. One answer already exists in Germany too, where wheels are certified in an auditing process. In the meantime, MWS is calling on the wheel industry to “stand up and take action”, by creating the awareness of potential issues with wheels entering the market in this way, and educating users on how to check wheels more thoroughly for faults.
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