Connecting the dots

Connecting the dots

By now we can use the oxymoron “old news” to describe both microdot technology and its legislative implementation in South Africa, but what exactly are the benefits of microdotting, and to what standards should it conform? JACO DE KLERK investigates.

I might have exaggerated the “old news” part when it comes to the microdotting of vehicles being law in South Africa, since the implementation date was the first of this month. However, former Minister of Transport Sibusiso Ndebele’s amendment to the National Road Traffic Act was published in the Government Gazette on March 9 this year.

The amendment, as it appeared in Gazette Number 35130, reads: “A motor vehicle registered for the first time in the Republic on or after 1 September 2012, shall be fitted with microdots which comply with the requirements of standard specification SANS 534-1 ‘Vehicle security – Whole of vehicle marking Part 1: Microdot systems.’.”

In short, all new vehicles registered from now on have to be microdotted in line with South Africa’s microdot standard. However, it’s one thing to know you have to do something, and it’s another to know why, how and at what cost. The best place to start is to consider what criteria a dot should be compliant with.

In the Gazette, a microdot is defined as a micro-particle with a diameter smaller than 1,8 mm that bears a unique optically-readable microdot identifier – this could be the vehicle identification number (VIN) for new vehicles or a personal identification number (PIN) for older models – and the identifier must be legible with equipment that magnifies the text 60 times.

These dots can be used to determine the identity of a vehicle and will help deter theft. The microdot proof of concept has been run by the South African Police Service (SAPS) for the last six years, according to Philip Opperman, chief executive officer of Recoveri Tag What’s Yours. “The technology, if applied correctly, reduces theft and highjacking by as much as 60 percent,” he says.

Recoveri, a completely South African-owned company, was established in 2004 by a local entrepreneur who spent years researching microdot technology. This knowledge, combined with the skills and expertise of local engineers, took Recoveri from humble beginnings to a developer of truly South African products for the identification of vehicles and
other moveable assets – both domestic and corporate.

The true value of the microdot system lies in the quantity of dots and the manner in which they are applied. Around 10 000 dots are mixed with a special solution, which is both the transport medium and the adhesive. The solution is then sprayed across the vehicle in both obvious and obscure places. The solution then dries in a hard, clear finish that is nearly invisible on the vehicle’s surface.

“The adhesive that is used to apply the microdots contains a UV base which glows when exposed to a black light,” explains Opperman. “This method is used by the SAPS to identify a microdotted vehicle or part. The microdot PIN number is registered to the vehicle’s original VIN, which can be referenced to ascertain whether the vehicle is stolen or not.”

Even though the standard is 10 000 microdots per vehicle, Recoveri provides 15 000, essentially making it impossible to rid a vehicle of all its dots: “In effect,” says Opperman, “criminals would need to remove all 15 000 microdots – while the police only have to find one.” Any attempt to remove the dots will also damage the item, lowering its value and thus eliminating the criminals’ incentive for stealing the asset.

Opperman adds that microdot technology hasn’t only proven itself as a crime deterrent, but also as an invaluable investigative aid that leads to higher conviction rates. “Further to this, insurers can now positively identify the vehicles after a claim, leading to a much higher salvage rate,” he says. “This will ultimately benefit consumers by keeping insurer premiums at a more affordable rate.”

Taking all the benefits into account, it’s no wonder the SAPS isn’t the only organisation to support microdot technology. Others to adopt the technology ahead of it being a legal requirement include Business Against Crime, the South African Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, the South African Insurance Association, and the Vehicle Anti-Crime Steering Committee.

Opperman points out that the amendments to the National Road Traffic Act have been favourably received by vehicle manufacturers, who see the benefits of the microdot system. “The industry was also instrumental in the vehicle microdot design and partook in the SANS 534-1 authoring committee,” he explains. Opperman thinks the social responsibility that microdotting plays in the proactive prevention of highjacking and theft had a huge influence on manufacturer participation in and acceptance of the amendments.

The alterations don’t, however, place sole responsibility on manufacturers since motor vehicles requiring SAPS vehicle clearance also require microdotting from the first of September.

Opperman explains that the application of microdots by OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) is typically done on the factory production line, at a cost of between R124 and R154. Aftermarket fitment can be done at dealerships by accredited technicians who are “mobile operators”, with the cost depending on the microdot supplier. “It varies between R699 and R2 200 per vehicle, but Recoveri’s recommended price is between R699 and R999, depending on the location of the dots.”

Alta Swanepoel from Alta Swanepoel & Associates emphasises that new vehicles won’t be registered, and existing vehicles won’t receive police clearance, if they are not fitted with microdots. As an associate with Africon in 1989, Swanepoel acted as a consultant for the Department of Transport and was part of a team that drafted the Road Traffic Act and related regulations.

The amendment states that all “motor vehicles” have to be fitted with microdots, but as Swanepoel points out, one has to consider the definition of a motor vehicle.

Section One of the National Road Traffic Act defines a motor vehicle as any self-propelled vehicle and includes: “a vehicle having pedals and an engine or an electric motor as an integral part thereof or attached thereto and which is designed or adapted to be propelled by means of such pedals, engine or motor.” So trailers must be dotted as well.

However, microdotting a “motor vehicle”, even one without an engine, definitely provides benefits to owners and the authorities alike, with Opperman summarising it perfectly: “Microdotting a vehicle, or any asset for that matter, is the most cost-effective tool for the proactive prevention of crime as well as the most effective tool for investigation.”

So connect the dots as the law requires, and see just how far simple “motor vehicle” identification can go toward stifling crime.

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