Taking safety seriously
By Rutger Oldenhuis LLM – Published in Bike Europe Magazine 5-2023
In September 2018, a terrible accident took place in the Netherlands. An electric vehicle, called a ‘Stint’, which is a small electric cart primarily used for transporting young children, was hit by a passenger train. These vehicles were commonly used in the Netherlands by childcare centres for transporting groups of children. As a result of the collision, four children lost their lives and two other individuals, a child and the adult driver of the Stint, were seriously injured.
Five years later, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM) is bringing charges against two companies responsible for producing and selling the Stint, along with two company executives, for their involvement in multiple criminal offenses. This decision comes after an extensive investigation that was initiated following the accident in 2018. Based on the findings of this investigation, the OM concluded that the Stint qualified as a harmful product as defined in the Dutch Penal Code. Many studies would show that the product was unsafe on numerous points. For example, it allegedly did not meet the safety requirements as laid down in the Machinery Directive and the EMC directive. An investigation showed that the Stint had no proper brake construction, no brake switch, a faulty throttle, no start-up protection and no presence detection. The OM also reported that there were claims indicating that the Stint had undergone the CE marking procedure, despite this being untrue. The Declaration of Conformity (DoC) and manual wrongly highlighted its adherence to the safety requirements outlined in the Machinery Directive. The suspicion is that the individuals in question were well aware of the harmful effects associated with the product, yet chose to remain silent about it. Additionally, the individuals under suspicion are facing charges related to forgery. They falsely informed authorities that the Stint had undergone the appropriate CE marking procedure when applying for road admission. Furthermore, they altered their own manual by removing all references to this procedure shortly after the 2018 accident.
The Stint issue could have happened in any country and clearly shows that manufacturers must take product compliance and product safety very seriously. Of course, most accidents don’t receive the extensive news coverage that the Stint case did. However, with the introduction of the EU General Product Safety Regulation, manufacturers will be obligated to report accidents caused by their products, extending the government’s reach.
The people behind the Stint did not wish for or foresee this terrible accident. And yet that is exactly what you should do as a product manufacturer: contemplate worst case scenarios during the design and development phase and ensure that the product is designed to withstand them. Unfortunately, product compliance and product safety are all too often seen as an annoying expense. However, not taking these critical aspects seriously can come at a great cost. Besides the potential product risks for end-users, producers can be held criminally accountable if they wilfully and knowingly put a harmful product on the market.
The Stint case may also serve as a reminder that signing a DoC is much more than just a formality and should not be taken lightly. By signing a DoC, the signatory is taking legal responsibility that the product conforms to the specified requirements. This means that if the product does not actually conform, the signatory and/or the company could be held liable. For market surveillance authorities, a DoC is like low-hanging fruit. An incorrect or inaccurate DoC is a smoking gun and can easily lead to the conclusion that a company lacks effective safety processes. It underscores the importance of having product compliance and safety higher on the boardroom agenda. Compromising on product compliance and product safety budget is a dangerous balancing act. In the end, prioritising safety goes beyond merely establishing the right processes. It is fundamentally a mindset.