This is the moment: the car salesperson hands over the keys to your brand-new car, which is perfectly perched and wrapped in a bow. It’s certainly a snapshot worthy of an Instagram post, after all it’s your new baby. And much like having a new born, purchasing your first set of wheels is certainly a milestone worth celebrating. Naturally, you might view your new symbol of independence as an extension of yourself and want to spruce it up, making it your own and boosting its performance! But, whether you just make a few barely visible enhancements or go full out and “pimp” your ride, you still have to adhere to car modification laws in South Africa. So before you drop your suspension, park somewhere comfortable and read up to make sure you are on the right side of the law.

Your driver has arrived!

LAW FOR ALL is taking you on a journey of the dos and don’ts of car modifications and alterations in South Africa

Our first stop is finding out what exactly are considered car modifications. According to Arrive Alive, it “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, or top speed runs”. Generally speaking, alterations wouldn’t necessarily affect the performance of the vehicle, whereas modifications would.

There are three main categories of trendy car modifications:

Aesthetic or visual makeovers

If those dramatic spray-painted flames on the sides of a car come to mind, you are on the right track. In addition to paint jobs and decorations, visual modifications can also include chrome rims, grilles and so-called “halo” headlights.  For the most part, these changes only affect the way the car looks and not the way it performs or potentially endangers other road users. Because of this, these alterations are generally seen as harmless.

Functional enhancements

Vehicle owners who are generally happy with their automobile’s performance, meaning they are not looking to increase the machine’s power, usually make functional enhancements for practical reasons.  For example, a farmer who has to navigate bumpy roads and rough terrain on their land might want to lift the suspension on their trusty bakkie to elevate the vehicle and avoid any damage to its bottom.  Car owners who want to give their vehicles a sportier look and feel might opt for bigger and wider tyres and drop the suspension slightly.

Performance modifications and enhancements

For those drivers who want to ramp up their vehicle’s engine power, speed and breaking abilities. Various enhancements such as installing turbo chargers or making use of Nitrous Oxide can drastically alter how fast a car can go. The big problem is that these performance modifications are likely to be illegal since they threaten the safety of the driver and other road users.

Hold on, let’s pull over for a second… how do I know which modification are illegal?

Excellent question. As Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director,  points out, “ The National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 isn’t very specific about which modifications are indeed illegal or not. But, before you take your car in for an extreme makeover, you have to ask yourself it will still be roadworthy and if it might endanger other drivers”. Remember, if your vehicle ends up not being roadworthy, you will have to make the necessary changes and restore it so that it can legally be on the roads again and take it through a roadworthy test again- of course, this will also cost money.

You can check your planned car enhancements against Arrive Alive’s list of modifications that are likely illegal. These include,

  • Excessive speed enhancements (like Nitrous Oxide cylinders)

    Image courtesy:
  • Lowering the suspension to the point where it affects the handling of the vehicle
  • Fitting larger wheels that might affect the steering and general control of the vehicle
  • DIY suspension changes that involve cutting springs or heating coils to lower the body of the vehicle

    Image courtesy: Wheels24
  • Installing a bigger engine than the vehicle can handle and might affect the handling, ability to stop and increase the wear and tear of tyres.
  • Custom number plates that include symbols (such as %, &, @ or $) or vulgar and harmful language
  • Installing a sound system that might cause an illegal noise nuisance, which is defined as any noise that “may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person”.

    Image courtesy: Richard Bailey

But, because the actual Act is quite vague, many traffic authorities often take liberties in enforcing it and could interpret any modifications that alter the car’s appearance so much that it doesn’t resemble the actual model anymore as illegal.

 “Bear in mind, if you make adjustments that affect the handling or the speed capabilities of your car, you could end up endangering your own life and potentially the lives of other road users. The could lead to fines, prison time, your vehicle being impounded or AARTO demerits -once implemented,” adds Nagtegaal.

Many car modifications are often implemented by those who participate in illegal drag racing in South Africa:

Ok, my understanding is back on track. Let’s hit the road again… what modifications would be legal?

Don’t worry, your freedom of expression hasn’t been written off! In addition to most of the aesthetic, decorative and functional elements mentioned earlier, there are other valid enhancements. “Valid modifications are those that involve the fitment of manufacturer approved accessories that do not affect the warranty of vehicles,” according to Wheels24.

Basically, they would have a positive impact on the fuel economy, function and safety of the vehicle.

 These include:

  • Better and improved tyres that will increase the safety of the vehicle.
  • Enhanced lighting that will increase visibility on the roads at night.
  • Certain window tints that block out the sun or help prevent smash-and- grabs.
  • Computer re-mapping to boost engine performance

You have reached your destination…

Our journey may have can to an end, but now it’s time for you to take your brand new car for a spin and think about how you are going to “pimp” your ride legally and responsibly.

We’ve got your back!

Remember, if you’ve been pulled over, arrested and not sure what to do, as a LAW FOR ALL policyholder, you have access to a 24-hr legal advice hotline.

Be sure to have a look at LAW FOR ALL’s comprehensive policies and sign up today!