How should we modernise our car MOT system?

The MOT system has not got great press in the past few years. There was the issue with the lifts, then the pandemic has caused massive delays.

My car is not due its MOT until June but I thought I would be clever and book ahead. Logging into the booking system it told me there was no availability until May or June. When I tried to book for the end of May it told me that I could not book ahead longer than 3 months. So you have a weird catch 22 when the only appointments are 3-4 months away but you can only book up to 3 months in advance.

A clever chap on Twitter said the way around it is to just book whatever date you can, then closer to the date your MOT is due to expire login to the system and look for cancellations. All this seems an enormous amount of hassle for the poor motorists of Northern Ireland. Not having an MOT can cause you serious problems with your insurance, and I also don’t think you are even allowed to be on the road without a valid MOT.

Nichola Mallon, the DFI Minister, proposed changing the law to only require MOTs every two years. This seems a sensible enough suggestion, but is it enough of a change to make the system better?

Allow me to go off on a tangent. The other day my 6-year-old son picked up a CD and asked me what it was. He is of the generation where Alexa plays whatever song you like via Spotify. He will never know the world of tapes, vinyl or even CDs. It got me thinking of all the things he will never experience. One of those will probably be pushing a car. Anyone born before 1980 will likely have experienced having to push a car. You would be walking along the street minding your own business when a fella would wind down his window and shout, ‘You would not give me a push mate?’ Hopefully, there would be a few other stout fellas knocking around and you would all get behind the back of the Ford Escort or whatever it was and you would give it a strong push. After a few seconds of exertion the momentum would kick in and hopefully, the guy was able to start the car and be on his merry way.

The point of this segue is that you never see anyone pushing a car these days. Modern cars are a marvel of reliability. In all my years of driving, I have never needed to do as much as personally change the oil in any of my cars. In fact, I seem to get away with not even needing to refill the water, the yearly service does all that stuff for me. I get in, turn the key and away I go.

Airbags, ABS, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, lane guidance, ISOFix child seats – cars have never been as reliable or as safe.

A few things to consider:

  • If a car is getting a yearly service does it even need an MOT?
  • If a car is in warranty does it need an MOT? Should you only need an MOT the year after your car warranty expires?
  • Should we be using reliability data to target certain brands and models with known issues?
  • Should we factor in mileage and other criteria?

Then there is the question of do we even need government test centres? Could the dealers or local garages not do the MOT test like they do in England? The argument against this is that government centres are impartial whereas private operators could be billing you for unnecessary work.

As Ben Lowry pointed out in the Newsletter:

In Great Britain, where cars were then first tested (in private garages) after three years on road that initial MOT was failed by 21.6% of cars.

In Northern Ireland, where cars are first tested after four years, the initial failure rate was a mere 10.3%.

Cars in the Province had a far higher pass rate than newer cars in Great Britain, despite the NI cars having a full extra year of usage and wear and tear than the GB ones.

That does seem a bit damning, especially when you factor in that our roads are sh*te compared to England. A private garage could tell you anything and very few of us would have the knowledge to question what they say. The reason why garages clean your car after a service is for many of us that is the only evidence we have that they have done anything. For all we know, they could have just washed the car and done nothing else and charged us £200 quid.

As I have written before, when the system works properly, at £30 I think the MOT test is good value. The issue is we need to be guided by the evidence and have sensible policies as to when cars need to be checked. Most of all we have to be able to give people tests within a reasonable time scale.

And if anyone from DFI is reading this, a simple improvement would be to let people book more than 3 months ahead.

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