The operator of the National Car Test (NCT) has dropped an appeal against a court ruling ordering it to pay compensation to the family of a motorist involved in a fatal traffic accident.
Amanda O'Flaherty died in December 2012 when the car she was driving suddenly veered into the path of an oncoming vehicle near Cobh, County Cork.
Last December, Cork Circuit Court Judge Brian O’Callaghan ruled that Applus Car Testing Service, which operates the NCT, was liable because Ms O’Flaherty’s car had passed the NCT despite being unroadworthy. He ordered Applus to pay €31,000 in compensation to Ms O’Flaherty’s family.
The judge accepted expert testimony that the car’s rear shock absorbers – crucial components of a vehicle’s suspension - were defective, not just at the time of the accident, but also when the car passed the NCT in May 2012, around the time Ms O’Flaherty bought the vehicle.
He also accepted evidence that the defects were the probable cause of the accident. Functioning shock absorbers are crucial to vehicle safety because they help to keep tyres in contact with the road.
The Road Safety Authority (RSA), which supervises the NCT system, said it wouldn’t comment on the Circuit Court judgement "...except to note, as a general comment, that only decisions of the High Court and above have the effect of being binding precedents."
Applus declined to say why it withdrew the appeal or if it took any action in response to the judgement, but it said in a statement that the "...NCT test adheres and exceeds the EU Directive requirements for vehicle inspection including the suspension test."
Amanda O’Flaherty’s mother, Paula Murphy, who took the case against Applus, described the company’s decision to withdraw the appeal as a "relief." She said the court ruling had brought "some bit of closure" to her over her daughter’s death. "Nothing is going to bring Amanda back, but this part of it now is finished. The car should never have gone through (the NCT)... it was a death trap," she said.
An RTÉ Investigates Testing the Limits report in 2016 highlighted a flaw in the NCT suspension test which means it is possible for a dangerously defective car to get an NCT certificate even if the right- and left-side shock absorbers are faulty, as long as they are equally faulty.
The NCT suspension test has two key parts - a visual test for defects and a balance test. In the balance test, vehicles are put on a machine and shaken vigorously to measure the movement of the suspension. If the differential between the movement on the left and that on the right is greater than 30%, the car will fail the test. However, if both shock absorbers are similarly faulty and therefore roughly in balance, they can pass, as long as there are no visible defects such as oil leaking from a shock absorber.
In the 2016 RTÉ broadcast, retired NCT Vehicle Inspector John Sherry said that testers can be obliged to pass a car even when it is clear that its shock absorbers are defective.
If "...you found that there was no imbalance on it. You put it up on the ramp then and you found that there was no sign of a leak, there was no sign of damage; you had no option but to pass that car. The equipment had passed it," Mr Sherry told the programme.
Among the evidence provided by Paula Murphy’s legal team was a document from 1999 produced by the German makers of the NCT suspension test equipment, MAHA, which stated that, for the same model as Ms O’Flaherty’s car, a reading of 60 Mahameters (virtually identical to millimetres) signalled that a car would be "unsafe to drive."
When Ms O’Flaherty’s car was tested, the NCT measured the suspension movement at 96 Mahameters (96Mm) on the nearside rear suspension and 94Mm on the offside. The imbalance was only 2%, so the car passed.
NCT operator Applus, however, says that the MAHA document is obsolete. In its statement, it said that the equipment maker’s "...historical reference to shock absorber values was abandoned many years ago as this method proved to be inconsistent and unreliable and is no longer supported or referenced by the manufacturer."
Calculating the point where a shock absorber becomes so "bouncy" as to render it defective is not an exact science and the 1999 MAHA document acknowledges that "...there is no official basis for evaluation of the shock absorber test values."
Independent auto engineers have told RTÉ that readings higher than 80Mm for regular cars suggest the shock absorbers are defective. The Road Safety Authority has, however, previously stated that the suspension test readings of Ms O’Flaherty’s car "...are not sufficient as a basis to establish the roadworthiness of a car" and that "...these readings or similar readings are not the cut-off point to deem a shock absorber defective."
The RSA has declined to provide figures on the number of cars that pass the NCT despite a high reading on the suspension test. However, an analysis for the agency conducted by the UK Transport Research Laboratory consultancy in 2016 found that for cars of the same age and make as Amanda O’Flaherty’s (1995, Mazda 121), about half had suspension-test readings of 90Mm or higher. The report did not state how many of these cars passed the NCT.