Transport Matters

This morning I read about a terrible situation that several people with disabilities find themselves in, all of whom drive heavily modified Skoda Yetis:  http://www.stuff.co.nz/motoring/news/9843463/Disabled-drivers-fume-over-loss-of-transport  Due to potential safety issues, 8 warrants of fitness were revoked in December by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), after the cars were deemed to be noncompliant and therefore, not roadworthy. The Skoda Yetis were each bought for $85, 000NZ, so every individual car and modification process has been a huge investment for owners and/or funding agencies.

These car owners are in virtually the same position as lawbreakers who have had their licenses suspended. Their independence has been stripped from them and they are completely reliant on others to transport them from place to place. The only difference is the modified Skoda Yeti owners have been given a one off subsidy of $5000 for transport costs until the matter has been resolved. It feels to me like these car owners are being treated like this is their fault. Of course it isn’t; the cars were certified roadworthy before the purchase of their vehicles and now, after purchase, this status has been revoked. This is just not good enough. If this was happening to able-bodied people, there would be a public outcry.

Has anybody from the parties involved in this sorry mess, apart from the car owners themselves, ever tried to take public transport in a manual or electric wheelchair?

As I have outlined in a previous blogpost (Living Is Not A Luxury: https://chellehope.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/living-is-not-a-luxury/), bus transport can be extremely difficult for certain people with disabilities and there are a number of factors outside of a passenger’s control that might potentially make travel by bus a real nightmare, including: steep ramps that only work well on certain curb sites; lack of turning ability inside the bus and allocated spaces that can be awkward to get into and out of; busy buses that just don’t have the room to carry a person in a wheelchair; the discomfort on those same busy buses for people with disabilities and, perhaps the most affecting issue, driver attitude and willingness to work with the passenger who has a disability to ensure they have a comfortable, hassle-free journey. This is by no means an extensive list and it will of course vary from person to person. If any number of these issues factor into a person’s journey by bus, it can make the whole experience really quite traumatic.

There can be difficulties, too, in travelling by taxi, for a person with a disability. For those who cannot transfer on their own into a car, or who find it too difficult, a TMV may be their only option. A Total Mobility Vehicle (TMV) is a van with a wheelchair lift and space to carry the wheelchair user without having to transfer out of their wheelchair. TMV transportation can be great but again the passenger is reliant on a good and competent driver who knows what they are doing. Often, depending on where you live and the company you use, this option comes with a large flag-fall surcharge which, if you are not going far, can actually cost a lot more than your journey. In my experience some drivers/companies do not meter their TMV fares either, so the passenger has to accept a previously agreed charge or a seemingly arbitrary fare at the end of the journey. It’s not fair but if this is your only available mode of transportation, you have to accept these terms.

Not everybody who has a physical disability needs to use a TMV if they are taking a taxi. If, like myself, you are able to transfer relatively easily into a car on your own, you may be able to take a taxicab. Again, there can be difficulties here too, and again these difficulties can be exacerbated by drivers who make it very clear that you are a problem for them. There is nothing to stop drivers from starting the meter when you get into their cab. I’ve had some who have started the meter as soon as they stop. Though my wheelchair is easy to fold up and take apart, many drivers have struggled over the years with it. It can take a long time to get it into the boot or back seat and if the meter is running the entire time, again you can end up paying more for this waiting time than you might have for the entire journey.

The article that brought this issue of the noncompliance of modified Skoda Yetis to my attention highlighted the experience of one driver who states that he’s never had a problem with his modified vehicle and that the safety of the car has never been of concern to him. One can believe a vehicle to be as safe as they like but the onus is on the various transport agencies that we have to deem every vehicle roadworthy. That is as it should be. Road users rely on those assessments to keep us safe and to minimise harm, so I do understand that while the New Zealand Transport Association (NZTA) is sympathetic to the plight of these car owners, they have a responsibility, both ethically and legally, to ensure the safety of vehicles. What cannot be allowed to happen though is for vehicles to be certified roadworthy and then for that certification to, in effect, be made null and void after purchase when a warrant of fitness is revoked due to noncompliance issues in the manufacturing process. This is not the point at which these vehicles should have been deemed potentially unsafe and not roadworthy.

First, there’s the issue that some of these drivers have been driving their vehicles for many months on New Zealand roads. Now, if these vehicles have been assessed after purchase as noncompliant due to a manufacturing issue, the owners of the vehicles have themselves, as well as their family and friends and other road users been at undue risk the entire time that vehicle has been on the road. If, on the other hand, these vehicles are and always have been perfectly safe but have nonetheless been deemed not to be compliant to NZTA standards, it rather makes a farce of the entire compliance/safety issue, doesn’t it? Either way, the owners of these cars, all of whom have physical disabilities that make it much more than a bit of an inconvenience to seek alternative modes of transportation while this whole mess is being sorted out, deserve an apology and compensation at the very least. Though nothing is going to reverse the lack of independence, not to mention the stress caused by uncertainty that these people are still going through.

I’m not going to go into who I think is responsible or who I think should resolve this issue. That’s for others to decide. It doesn’t matter to me and I would guess it doesn’t matter one bit to any of these car owners either. They just want to be able to drive their cars to work, to the shops, to drop their kids off at school, to the movies…  A one off payment for transportation costs doesn’t begin to cover what these people have been through. That’s what matters. A good and swift resolution to this problem would have been good. This should never have happened but it has and it needs to be resolved: Now.

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