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Time to MOT your car park?
Published:  08 January, 2014

Motorists have to ensure their cars are safe in order to drive them, but owners and operators of car parks are not required by law to ensure their structures are sound, potentially putting hundreds of people at risk, writes Russell Simmons.

As a holder of a UK drivers licence, I am able to own and run a car, which I do. I need the car I own to get me around for work, for meeting friends and family and even rare holidays. 

I occasionally give lifts to others. Sometimes the people I give lifts to have only just met me as they are friends of friends or people I’ve just met through work. They will all willingly let me take them from place to place, and as far as I am aware, with relatively low anxiety. 

This remains the case even when they find out I know absolutely nothing about how to maintain the car that I am driving, at speeds up to 70 miles an hour, with up to four passengers in it. 

I have owned my current car for just over a year, and I have opened the bonnet once, to put screen wash in, and this procedure could be descripted as protracted, thanks to my pitiful knowledge of car maintenance.

But it’s fine. We are safe. The car is safe to use and well maintained. I know this, and to a degree the people getting in my car know this, even if they don’t know me. This is because in the UK as with many other counties around the world, we operate a statutory testing scheme for vehicles. 

The MOT is a test of vehicle safety, roadworthiness aspects and exhaust emissions which is required for most vehicles used on public roads in the UK and required to be taken every single year, once the vehicle is three years old. 

If the car is not safe, as it has failed to meet the standards in the MOT test, the car is not road legal, and it can’t be used. 

It’s a great system. People like me, who know nothing about making sure a vehicle is safe, can be sure that the vehicle is being checked by a suitably qualified individual who is very knowledgeable on the subject, and is going to tell me (and the government) if they find anything wrong. Most of time, if anything is found to be wrong, it is fairly minor and can be resolved pretty quickly. Fantastic. 

If I can’t afford to take the MOT test, or can’t afford to do what is required to make the car pass, then I can’t drive that car. I need to find a car I can afford, or I need to get my bike out (which may well cause increased anxiety to my regular passengers).

So what’s the point in this? We all know about the MOT system, and we all get on with it. True. But when you park your car in a multi storey car park, how do you know the structure you have entered is as safe as your certificated and compliant car?

Surely to own and run a car park, the government must be checking the safety? Checking the condition? Checking that the owners have the correct procedures in place and can afford to maintain the facility? You’d have thought so, but that’s just not the case. 

For example, I have a friend who knows nothing about construction, concrete, chlorides or carbonation (he can’t even put up a shelf) and yet he is free and able, funds permitting, to enter the world of car parking providers by buying and operating his own multi-storey car park structure. There is no test, no check, no certificate and no obligation as such to survey the car park that he has just bought, even when he knows nothing about maintaining car parks (or shelves), to the same degree as I know nothing about maintaining cars. 

I will concede that all owners of car parks have a legal obligation to ensure the car park is ‘safe’ but how do they do this? Quite often this is by means of a walkover survey being undertaken every 10 years or so. This doesn’t sound safe to me. I’m not sure what condition my poor car would be in if it were only looked at once every 10 years. 

Wouldn’t it be sensible to have a system in place to promote proactive and structured monitoring of the condition of the car park, and to have suitably qualified and experienced professionals ensuring that the structure was indeed fit for use, and that any recommendations for works required are listed in a time bound fashion? I think so. 

The institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) together with the Institute of Structural Engineers (ISTRuctE) and indeed the British Parking Association (BPA) all agree. They call it ‘Life Care Planning’ and the recommendations have been out there for some time, with the ICE introducing the idea in 2002.

Eleven years on, the concept hasn’t exactly taken off. Three years ago I undertook some research and found out of 30 car parks, only two had life car plans. To back this up, the BPA undertook a survey of its members in 2009 and only 20 per cent of those surveyed declared having a life care plan, although it was clear that some of those claiming to have one in place did not necessarily have a full understanding of the concept. 

If you need to find out what the concept is all about, the BPA have a parking practise note (PPN) on the subject (Number 6) and I would urge you to familiarise yourself with it, as together with PPN 30 (liability) it really does provide a definitive guide to the recommendations. 

I believe at least some of the reason behind the lack of adopting the recommendations, is that the general parking public are not aware of the risks associated with poorly maintained structures and with very few incidents having occurred in recent history, there is little incentive for operators to comply. 

As part of the Great British Parking Debate, held in Leeds in October of this year, the Structures and Asset management Special interest group (SAMSIG) met to discuss what could be done. 

As a result, SAMSIG will be looking at re-releasing PPN 6 (mentioned above), perhaps in conjunction with a standalone guide book for owner operators, and also looking at the practicalities of introducing an MOT test type system for parking structures.

Wouldn’t it be good to one day be able to enter a car park structure, content in the knowledge that the structure is subjected to inspections, and required safety measures are implemented to ensure that your safe MOT compliant car, is in a safe and compliant car park. One day! 

Russell Simmons is director at Pyle Car Park Consultants