16 JANUARY 2002

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Testing times for garage owners

The Vehicle Roadworthiness Test was brought in amid much publicity a couple of years ago. But some time on, most garage owners are unhappy with the system, saying it needs far more control. Ray Cutajar tells MIRIAM DUNN about his own experiences

Many garage owners are unhappy with the current VRT set-up. What went wrong?
Our biggest problem relates to the fact that there are so many VRT-licensed establishments operating.
When the white paper was first put forward, the authorities worked on an estimated figure of 20 garages that would be needed to carry out the work in Malta and Gozo.
But there are in fact almost double that number of operators working in the sector and there simply isn’t enough work to go round. Many are doing disastrously and losing a lot of money.

Couldn’t the authorities argue that this is what happens in a free market economy?
This is what they say. We disagree with the principle of monopolies, but in this case, there isn’t a monopoly, since that would only be the case if one operator had all the VRT testing stations.
We are arguing that the system needs much better control. It is out of hand and the consequences of this struggling sector are there for all to see.
We are unhappy that the authorities allowed so many garages to be granted a licence to operate in such a restricted market. We thought the number would be limited to keep business viable.
When the VRT was first mentioned, it was very much an unknown quantity. About eight operators decided to make the initial investment, which is in the region of Lm25,000, but because there was an artificially high demand at the beginning, since the test was new, more operators moved into the line of business.
Now we have a situation where there isn’t enough work to go round and that has led to many problems and in some cases abuse.

What have been the consequences of the current situation?
The initial result is that many garages have suffered severe losses.
From reports that we had commissioned by independent auditors, we found that VRT operators were posting a loss in excess of Lm5,000 annually. We also calculated that simply to break even, we needed to carry out eight VRT tests daily. Many of us are averaging considerably less than that – perhaps two or three. And this is simply not viable over a number of years. At this rate, some businesses will have no option but to close down.
Of course, one spin-off of this situation is that operators have been tempted to bend the rules when undertaking the VRT test. They fear reprisal or loss of repeat business from clients who go to have their car tested, so they are passing cars without doing a thorough test.
This is very frustrating for those of us who have a reputation for being "strict" since we are probably losing business, especially when word gets around that another operator is a better bet for an easy certificate! But, at the same time, it is easy to understand that an operator on the verge of bankruptcy will abuse.

But surely there is a structure for monitoring and controlling the garages carrying out the testing?
The Licensing and Testing Department is responsible for carrying out inspections of garages. But while they are very understanding of the situation and have listened to our concerns, they are also undermanned when it comes to monitoring abuses.
For example, there is only one person undertaking inspections for the whole island, and it is well known among operators that his working hours are 8am – 5pm, Monday - Friday. Many garage owners work all hours under the sun – we all work late if needed and I have lost count of the times I’ve given out a VRT at 10pm or at the weekend.
If you think about it, it is evident that the current inspection system is not sufficient simply from the number of vehicles we see on the road that are evidently not roadworthy. According to what we have been told, all vehicles should now have a VRT.
This means that someone somewhere has been giving out certificates to the owners of these vehicles.
Data that has come our way from the reports we commissioned is also quite telling. For example, if certain establishments have very high numbers of certificates issued, it needs to be ascertained that the tests being done are thorough.
The department is aware of the problem, and so far, one garage has been fined for abusive practice. But we need the levels of inspection stepped up if the matter is to be treated seriously and abuse is really going to be curbed.

You mentioned the heavy investment VRT operators have had to make. What does the work entail?
Apart from the considerable outlay that we have had to make on the equipment needed to carry out the tests, the work needed on each car is very time consuming.
In fact, we estimate an average of 30 minutes for each VRT test, with two people needed to work on a vehicle.
The work has to be done thoroughly. We need to carry out a visual inspection of the external bodywork, glasswork and look at the physical condition of the tyres, wheels, seatbelts, steering wheel, brake pedals and so on, as well as jacking up the car and looking at the exhaust system, brake pipes and checking for oil leaks.
What is worse is that when we are testing a car and find a minor problem, such as a defective bulb, we are under pressure to put things right and still charge the same, since otherwise clients grumble and threaten to go elsewhere where operators will simply turn a blind eye to what’s wrong and pass the vehicle.
Unless a move is made to ensure the testing procedure is taken seriously, none of our problems will go away.

What changes do you hope to see implemented?
As an immediate measure, we would like to see the authorities raise the price of a VRT. At Lm8.50, it is really not viable for the amount of work it takes. Most of us are running the VRT section of our business at a loss and compensating with our repair jobs.
In the longer term, we would like to see the authorities take better control of the garages offering VRT and restrict the number operating for each area of the island – even directing vehicle owners to use a garage in their area. This might sound like interfering in the free market, but we argue that there are already restrictions on our work, since we are not supposed to carry out repair work on vehicles which we are examining for VRT purposes as this would be deemed a conflict of interests.
We are also unhappy with the Lm500 fee we are asked to pay each year to renew our licence, since we view this as excessive.
Since we joined the Association of General Retailers and Traders and made our voice stronger, there is an indication that the department is listening to us.
In fact, we have been asked to give them some data, such as the average time it takes to do a VRT properly. My intuition is that these figures will be used, among other things, to examine certain cases where operators seem to be doing a suspiciously large number of tests in one day!
Of course, although the authorities’ intentions are good, we cannot expect them to be business-minded and sympathise with all our problems. But my own feeling is that at least if inspections and monitoring is stepped up sufficiently, there will be a level playing field for all operators.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt