Vehicle Modifications, Alterations and Road Safety
Manufacturers deliver vehicles which cater for the average driver and have settings that will provide the best (erring on the conservative) in terms of longevity, economy, ride comfort, performance.
That satisfies most drivers but some, quite possibly because they can’t find/afford a “performance” model from the manufacturer will create their own.
They change and alter the vehicle dynamics not only to be visually appealing in their own eyes but also for what they deem to be improvements in performance.
How does this impact on road safety and would any such modifications endanger lives on the roads?
We approached a few of our colleagues with extensive knowledge of the motoring industry in a Q&A to gain some insights on vehicle modifications and how they may impact on safe driving and our safety on the roads.
How would we best describe Modifications and Alterations? Do we look at nature as well as the intended purpose of such modifications?
Modifications and alterations are essentially the same things when it comes to motor vehicles.
As far as the practical descriptions go, alterations would not affect performance while modifications typically would.
Simply put alterations and/or modifications can be described as bringing about changes to the original vehicle parameter standards with a view, largely of enhancing a vehicle’s performance in fuel consumption, load capacity, cosmetic trim, 0 - 100km/h or top speed runs. Where these modifications/alterations do not comply with the requirements of the Road Traffic Act, they will be deemed illegal.
We could break it down into the following categories:
This would include the likes of paint jobs, chrome and aftermarket grilles, darkened lights or so-called “Angel's eyes,” etc. Changes that only affect aesthetics but none of the other categories.
This would typically have no direct impact on vehicle function, performance or safety.
While this is a huge industry, it is largely harmless.
Functional Modifications or Enhancements
These include “lifted suspensions,” bigger wheels, tinted windows, HID Headlamps and the like.
The driver would like the vehicle to look sportier and would change the wheels & tires (bigger / wider) and lower the suspension so that it sits lower to the ground. In many instances, the driver is happy with the performance so doesn’t touch the engine by increasing power.
These modifications or alterations if you will, are designed to improve the driver experience or render the vehicle more capable in a particular environment.
A good example would include off-road tires on a double-cab LDV, along with a so-called “suspension lift.”
This makes the LDV more capable of handling rough terrain and might include under-belly protection like “skid-plates” or winches to facilitate the novel application.
For road cars, this might involve a change in the wheel diameter, lower-profile tires, etc.
The enhancements affect the capabilities of a vehicle so they are more enhancements than mere alterations, but some are used only for aesthetic value.
This is where things get more relevant for road safety. The driver wants more power and better handling. To achieve this the engine may be upgraded with a Turbocharger on replaced altogether and to cope with the performance the suspension is changed and may include the replacement of shock absorbers (from mild to wild) and possibly even an upgrade of the brakes to improve stopping power.
It needs to be understood that Performance entails more than mere acceleration and straight-line speed.
As far as performance enhancements go, the outcome is likely to affect:
Engine power or torque (output).
Airflow or induction pressures (turbos and superchargers).
Chemical augmentation (fuel changes like running on AvGas or Aviation Fuel or even Nitrous Oxide or NOS).
This includes everything from engine software manipulation through plug-and-play exhaust systems, etc.
The enhancements are often done with pre-existing “kits” that manufactured, created or built for each brand or model individually.
The result is faster acceleration, better cornering or improved braking.
This is where the engineering types get involved and might include any, a combination of or even all the following:
Engine/wheel transfer modifications, such as differential, gearbox or gear ratio changes.
Suspension enhancements to ensure better road holding around corners, etc.
Introduction of completely new vehicle systems (any or all the above).
When design modifications are selected, the vehicle is almost completely re-designed.
Typically reserved for track application, this is a new “trend” that is more a manifestation of the financial limitations of the owner than anything else.
What are the most commonly found Modifications and Alterations on vehicles?
The most common alternations include after-market lights, larger wheels and lower-profile tires and sound enhancements (audio installations). It may also include computer re-mapping, exhaust system improvements and induction improvements (turbo boost adjustments, etc).
Examples of Modifications/Alterations
Aftermarket mag wheels which have a lower profile and probably allow for wider tires.
Steering wheels - depending on whether the vehicle has airbags
In passenger transport vehicles such as the ubiquitous “Mini-bus Taxi”, the most common alteration involves converting panel vans into passenger transport vehicles with additional seats and in minibuses, to fit additional seats to boost passenger-carrying capacity.
In passenger vehicles, the most popular alterations/modifications involve boosting engine capacity, the use of illegal devices such as nitrous oxide cylinders, dropping suspensions, fitting bigger wheels, applying extremely dark tinted windows, fitment of various body panels, spoilers, diffusers, tail fins and the like as well as changing the exhaust/silencer system to emit louder sounds and not forgetting the installation of super sound systems that exceed the approved decibels levels as prescribed in the Act.
When the alterations fall outside the manufacturer’s approved accessory installation and falls foul of the Act, then not only can it affect the warranty of a vehicle, but the car can be deemed illegal for use on a public road and can be “discontinued from service” necessitating restoring it to its original condition and presenting it for a re-test at an approved vehicle testing station.
Does our road legislation have any provisions with regards to vehicle modifications and alterations and with regards to what may and may not be altered?
Regrettably, not much of the Road Traffic Legislation deals with modifications and alterations. The proliferation of the kinds of enhancements and modifications seen today came into effect long after the Road Traffic Act was originally promulgated.
In some provinces, law enforcement officials have taken vehicles off the road based on their interpretation of the RTA which in “loose terms “deals with the fact the vehicle is not the way it left the factory.
The National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 Clause 216 (1) states:
“A motor car, minibus, bus or goods vehicle fitted with at least four wheels, or a trailer, operated on a public road, shall comply with the relevant requirements as specified in the Government Notices issued in terms of section 22 of the Standards Act, 1993 (Act No 29 of 1993) and listed in Annex A to code of practice SABS 047: “The Testing of motor vehicles for roadworthiness”.
It further goes on to say:
(3) “Notwithstanding anything pertaining to the extent of the application of the requirements referred to in sub-regulation (1), any motor vehicle design or any design of a motor vehicle modification submitted to the inspectorate of manufacturers, builders, and importers in terms of regulation 43, shall comply with the requirements relevant to such motor vehicle design or any design of a motor vehicle modification.”
While design modifications like the excessive dropping of suspensions could place the owner in a position where he is in violation of - for instance - wheel clearance (body contact) regulations, the act lacks the depth to address this industry directly.
The simplest test would be to take a modified vehicle for a roadworthy test. If anything fails, which might include even something as seemingly innocent as for instance spot-light positions, the car should probably not even be on the road.
What would be valid reasons for making any modifications or alterations to a “street legal” vehicle?
At the end of the day, with the sheer number of different models available and the very wide array of after-market enhancements and modifications being available, there are many that would impact positively on vehicle use, economy and safety.
On older vehicles (like VW Beetles) the drum brakes could be swapped for disk brakes - this is a safety enhancement.
For LDV’s, there could be the addition of off-road tires and winches for vehicles that are used off-road.
While “valid” is such a generic term, there would be many reasonable reasons for modification, which may include (but might not be limited to):
Tyre selection - better, lower-cost or more suitable wheels and tires.
Improved lighting - especially on certain types or models of vehicles.
Smash and grab window tinting for protection from sunlight and criminals.
So-called computer mapping boxes, to improve fuel economy (although many will result in warranties being affected).
How would you describe the difference between “valid” modifications as compared to those modifications that make a vehicle a danger on the road?
Any modification that enhances the capabilities of a vehicle - improve handling, safety or performance - can be either positive or negative.
If your car has more power and you use it with restraint, you can experience fuel economy benefits, but if you race like a maniac you could be at risk.
If you fit larger rims and better tires you could improve road holding or even road noise but if they are not compatible with your vehicle, do not fit properly or are of the incorrect speed rating, they could also expose you to risk.
In short - the enhancement or modification, as long as they are not preposterous, could be either good or bad depending on the user.
When a driver fits after-market accessories or does upgrades on a vehicle which are listed below then, generally speaking, there will be no problems:
Has the manufacturers approval
Has been developed and/or provided by companies which have suitable certifications regarding standards.
Are supplied by a local company who have an elevated level of credibility
On the other hand, modifications performed in earlier years (and sometimes still done) compromised the vehicles. These included:
Cutting and widening of rims in a DIY manner
Cutting of springs or heating of coils to lower a vehicle
Swapping between vehicles that had not been designed for. Common were engine swaps which saw V8 engines being placed in small cars where the chassis were not strong enough to cope with the increased power or brakes were not improved to make it possible for the vehicle to be brought to a stop from the speeds it could now achieve.
“Valid” modifications are those that involve the fitment of manufacturer approved accessories that do not affect the warranty of vehicles.
When people start tampering with the engine performance, drivetrain, suspension, wheels, and brakes of a vehicle, obviously going outside the approved parameters, then such vehicles’ dynamic performance, whilst enhanced, will compromise safety as the vehicles were not designed with high performance driving on a public road in mind.
Such highly modified vehicles can only be restricted for use on racing tracks. Illegal street racing with vehicles modified to boost the performance of the vehicle has become a significant concern to all in road traffic enforcement and a threat to all road users.
Which modifications are the biggest threat to road safety and would endanger the lives of both the driver and other road users?
Speed enhancement modifications.
Dropping ride heights significantly (suspension modifications) which affect the ride and handling and fitment of overly large wheels which affect steering and control of a vehicle.
The "home-done" suspension modifications which have seen springs falling out of the vehicle having no suspension travel at all.
Too big an engine for the vehicle which compromised:
Premature wear of wheel bearings and other critical components as a result of wide wheels and incorrect tires.
A major threat is the aftermarket enhancement of seating in Minibus Taxis.
If the number of seats that are available to passengers is increased without due consideration to vehicle design, extremely dangerous situations can follow.
There is also a saying in street racing circles: “What you do at the top, you must do at the bottom.”
It is too common for especially the young vehicle owners and aspiring “street racers” to commit all of their money to improve the acceleration and top speed of their vehicles while completely ignoring the need to also improve suspension and braking to ensure that the prevailing dynamics do not grossly exceed the stability or braking capacity of the vehicle.
If you attend a crash scene - which would be the tell-tale signs that vehicle modifications/alterations might have contributed to the crash?
One of the first signs of the involvement of modifications or enhancement being at play would be the location.
There are often areas that are specifically attractive to illegal street races.
If a collision happens in that area, late at night - perhaps after midnight - and involves a car that is visually enhanced, the possibility of the enhancement being a feature cannot be ignored.
The type of a vehicle and the “extra’s” fitted to it. Many vehicle brands are popular with aftermarket performance enhancement kits.
The more of such addendums fitted, the greater the likelihood that it was driven enthusiastically leading to loss of control ending up in a crash.
Do you believe that your average traffic officer has the necessary skills to identify components that might make the vehicle “non-roadworthy” and do you believe that training on this could make our roads safer?
Absolutely not. That is why many Traffic Departments and even Police Collision Units have so-called Vehicle Examiners.
The number of viable options and the increased technology installed in modern vehicles make it unlikely for the regular traffic officer to be able to stay abreast of these modifications.
A traffic officer who has undergone additional training in Examiner of Vehicles (EoV) will have the necessary skills to discontinue a vehicle found to be illegal for use on a public road and take the necessary action to remove it and charge the driver accordingly.
Are there any other impacts of vehicle modifications which present a threat other than road safety…i.e. environmental hazards etc.
In the pursuit of performance, owners have changed exhaust systems entirely or have resorted to removing the catalytic converter. The CAT is there to reduce toxic emissions which produce CO2 gasses. While this does improve performance, it is technically illegal.
Pollution is a major threat to our environment, this includes, smoke, lubrication and noise pollution. Vehicle owners and especially owners of “souped-up” cars need to understand the threat to our fragile environment and display the necessary responsibility.
A new trend is lighting enhancements. With the introduction of HID, LED and no even Laser Lighting, the newest trend includes the installation of so-called “light bars” that produce horrendous amounts of light. In a dark environment, these are extremely blinding and can present a huge risk to other road users. It is an aspect of road safety that has not reached mainline awareness yet.
Any other important insights into vehicle modifications that the public needs to be made aware of?
Where there are cars, there will be a competitive element. Since the advent of the motor car, more than a century ago, people were racing them, trying to set the fastest speed records. This behaviour becomes extremely dangerous when young, impressionable minds begin to further be influenced by movies such as “Fast and Furious”, “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “The Italian Job” where illegal street racing is glamorized to the point where, today, the after-market accessories business is a multi-million-rand business.
Be cautious to avoid the following:
Vehicles with suspensions too low compromise the driver’s ergonomics
Wheels which have tires “stretched”
Wheels too wide that catch the bodywork
Exchanging of steering wheels which have no airbag as a secondary restraint
In the case of 4x4’s
Massive wheels which change the handling of the vehicle
Bullbars which may inhibit airbag deployment
While the selling and purchasing of many items are not illegal, the fitment and use of such items on a public road are. Authorities will never be able to completely stop illegal street racing, drifting and spinning on public roads, participants will have to realize the dangers since dozens of young lives are lost needlessly and senselessly to crashes involving such illegal behaviour.
The best advice would always to engage in these activities in a controlled environment such as a racing track where marshals, instructors, and paramedics are on duty to assist when things get out of hand.
If your vehicle must be modified, have it done by a professional and with the necessary restraint. Always keep in mind that public roads are not race tracks - and consider yourself an integral contributor to road safety.
Road safety is a mindset more than an act or action. Try to remember that, no matter how much you may enjoy the enhancements to your vehicle, remember that the risk of injury or death is always present. Think Safety and Arrive Alive!
A word of Appreciation for the Kind Assistance provided by:
Stanley S Bezuidenhout
Forensic Road Transport and Risk Expert
Crash Guys International