“Coffins on wheels” – The dangerous ambulances on South African roads

South Africa’s roads are filled with illegally-converted taxis and ambulances, which pose a grave risk to their passengers and other motorists.

This is according to former banker and whistleblower Hennie de Beer, who first took a stand against the financing of these illegal vehicles when he filed a complaint with the Public Protector’s office in 2012.

That complaint addressed the issue of the widespread conversion of Toyota Quantum panel vans into passenger taxis which were found to be illegal and posed a significant danger to the lives of occupants and drivers.

De Beer has now claimed that these same panel vans are being converted into ambulances for provincial hospitals and private medical companies, despite suffering from the same fundamental flaws.

To understand why these illegally-converted panel vans pose such a threat, it is important to understand the difference between Quantum panel vans and passenger carriers – both of which are referred to as a “minibus” – as well as what the term “homologation” means and how it protects vehicle buyers from dangerous conversions.

Homologation and illegal conversions

In an interview with MyBroadband, De Beer explained that in order to convert a vehicle into a taxi or an ambulance, permission from the original manufacturer is required.

He said that Toyota South Africa is the importer of Quantum minibus vehicles – Toyota Japan is the original manufacturer. The builders are then the companies which conduct the actual vehicle conversions.

For someone to be able to convert a panel van into a taxi or ambulance, there are two criteria they must adhere to, said De Beer.

“Firstly, you have to have accreditation to be a builder, which is given by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS).”

You will also need permission from Toyota Japan – the original manufacturer of the Quantum minibus – to make this conversion, he said.

Once tests are conducted on the proposed converted vehicle, its safety is assured, the manufacturer gives its approval, and a layout diagram is drawn up dictating exactly how the vehicle must be converted.

This process is called homologation, and once it is completed the converted vehicle model is labelled as homologated.

According to a letter which was provided by De Beer and acknowledged in the Public Protector’s report published on 28 March 2019, Toyota SA first became aware that it was selling panel vans to taxi dealers to be illegally converted in 2005.

It told its dealers that the process was illegal and the converted taxi designs were not homologated, making them potentially unsafe.

The letter goes on to state the following:

If a client requires such a conversion, we suggest that you explain the situation and consequences to the client and the client must agree to the following:

1. The vehicle must be licensed and registered before the conversion is done.
2. Ensure that the client knows and acknowledges that the dealer in question and Toyota SA Motors will not be held liable or accountable for any failures regarding the unit, be it mechanical or otherwise.
3. Warranty claims on converted vehicles will also be affected.

The letter sent by Toyota South Africa to its dealers is shown at the end of this article.

De Beer also noted that former Toyota South Africa CEO Dr Johan van Zyl previously said Toyota Japan would never allow their panel vans to be converted into passenger vehicles.

He added that despite Toyota South Africa becoming aware of these illegal conversions in 2005, it continued to sell panel vans to buyers who converted them to passenger-carrying vehicles.

Panel vans vs Passenger-carriers

De Beer said the reason Toyota Japan would never allow the conversion of panel vans into passenger-carrying vehicles is due to the significant design differences between people-carriers and panel vans.

He explained there would be two production lines at the Toyota manufacturing plant for Quantum minibuses – one for passenger-carriers and one for panel vans.

This is because passenger-carrying vehicles have reinforcement throughout their bodywork to provide solid mounting points for chairs and fixtures, to protect passengers in the event of a crash, to provide structural support to the passenger compartment while allowing for windows to be installed on the body, and to provide rigidity to the vehicle so that it is stable on the road.

By comparison, Quantum panel vans are only designed to seat three people in the front. In the back, there is no reinforcement, no solid fixtures, and not enough structural rigidity to support passengers.

This is why Quantum panel vans often have stickers on the inside warning cargo loaders not to stand in the back. They are built for transporting cargo only and purposefully lack reinforcement so that they can carry more weight in their cargo compartment.

Subsequently, panel vans are significantly cheaper than passenger carriers.

Toyota Quantum panel vans and passenger-carrying vehicles can be differentiated by the beginning of their VIN numbers, as follows:

Toyota Quantum VIN Prefix Classification
JTFR Short wheelbase (SWB) People Carrier (10-seater)
JTFS Long wheelbase (LWB) People Carrier (14/16-seater)
JTFH Short wheelbase (SWB) Panel Van (3-seater)
JTFP Long wheelbase (LWB) Panel Van (3-seater)

Coffins on wheels

De Beer said one of the biggest problems with panel vans that have been illegally converted into passenger-carrying vehicles is a lack of torsional rigidity

This makes them unstable at high speeds and more difficult to control, as well as vulnerable to being crushed in the event of an accident. De Beer labelled them “coffins on wheels”.

In a Port Elizabeth Flying Squad police report regarding a Quantum panel van that was illegally converted into a taxi, Warrant Officer H.J. Claasen said the vehicle was “in unsatisfactory condition, its road handling ability is very poor, and conservatively considered to be a deathtrap”.

A lack of torsional rigidity can lead to the vehicles becoming difficult to control at high speeds or under sudden direction changes, and results in a much of higher risk of single-vehicle accidents, according to De Beer.

The addition of illegal windows without proper reinforcement and the attachment of seats to a panel van further compromise its structural integrity, which can result in horrific single-vehicle crashes.

De Beer showed MyBroadband a number of cases where a taxi or ambulance driver at the wheel of a converted panel van had lost control of the vehicle and crashed, resulting in severe injuries and fatalities not normally associated with a crash of a reinforced, homologated passenger-carrying vehicle.

He said that in the cases where converted Quantum panel vans were involved in crashes, whether they were ambulances or taxis, the cabins of the vehicles were crushed and the passengers inside provided with little to no protection.

Seats were ripped out of unreinforced and rusted fixtures, illegally-attached windows prevented the escape of trapped victims, and the unreinforced metal of the cargo compartment often splintered into or cut through victims as a result of the crash.

Images of illegally-converted Toyota Quantums panel vans used as ambulances that were involved in crashes are shown at the end of this article.

De Beer told MyBroadband that during the course of his investigation into illegally-converted Quantum panel vans, he recorded 166 taxi accidents involving the vehicles – most of which were fatal.

He said he had also unearthed 30 accidents involving converted Quantum panel van ambulances – most of which were fatal.

The Northern Cape ambulance fleet

On 5 June 2015, Northern Cape Premier Dr Zamani Saul celebrated the handover of 27 new ambulances for five districts within his province.

De Beer told MyBroadband that the vehicles handed over included illegally-converted Toyota Quantum panel vans which were not homologated.

He said Toyota supplied the panel vans to an auto-body builder in Gauteng, which was then tasked with converting the vehicles into ambulances.

The builder told De Beer that they were not provided with a layout diagram to allow them to safely convert the vehicle.

Instead, De Beer claimed the builder told him they were “flying blind” when converting the panel vans into ambulances.

Just two months after Zamani handed over the converted Quantum panel van ambulances to the Northern Cape provincial hospitals, one of the vehicles was involved in an accident.

In August 2019, the driver of one of the new Northern Cape ambulances lost control of the vehicle and it rolled.

49-year-old Ishmael Leeuw, a paramedic, was killed, and the driver was injured along with two nurses. Leeuw was sitting in the “passenger” compartment of the converted ambulance when the accident occurred.

De Beer said that tragic and avoidable deaths like this were why some medical companies chose not to use illegally-converted Quantum panel vans.

The licence disks of the ambulances which were involved in fatal crashes also showed that they were converted three-seater Quantum panel vans, as their VINs began with “JTFH” or “JTFP”.

An image of one of these licence disks is shown at this end of the article.

“Many years ago, ER24 also used these illegal conversions and the drivers were complaining about the road-holding ability on these vehicles,” he said.

“And just thereafter, one of these vehicles lost control and three paramedics and a patient were killed.”

“ER24 then scrapped all of the illegal vehicles and went the legal route.”

Saul Zamini ambulance handover
Northern Cape Premier Dr Saul Zamini accepts 27 Toyota Quantum ambulances. One of the paramedics in this photo was involved in a fatal crash two months later.

Investigation and licensing

The Public Protector’s report called on Toyota South Africa to take urgent and appropriate steps to assist in the identification and removal of converted Quantum panel vans on South African roads.

The company was also ordered to cooperate with the Department of Transport in its endeavours to reduce the number of illegally-converted Quantum panel vans in South Africa.

Speaking to the City Press, the Hawks confirmed they were also conducting a nationwide investigation into the use of converted Quantum panel vans as ambulances in South Africa.

Toyota South Africa told the publication the ambulance conversions were approved by the NRCS according to applicable safety requirements, adding that converting three-seater panel vans into ambulances was a practice done all around the world.

The NRCS also told the City Press that it was aware of the allegation by De Beer that these ambulances were illegally-converted panel vans, but said that its approvals for these ambulance conversions had been granted “in compliance with the legal requirements”.

However, De Beer said the NRCS would have to claim that the converted ambulances were homologated with the express permission of Toyota Japan in order for all the legal requirements to be met.

He said that this did not occur and maintained that Toyota South Africa did not obtain permission from the Quantum’s original manufacturer for homologation of the vehicle – despite being aware of the practice.

The problem is widespread, according to De Beer, who added that at least three provinces use these ambulances, as well as multiple private medical companies.

Noseweek estimated that at least 1,333 ambulances are illegal Quantum panel vans which have been converted without the permission of Toyota Japan.

ER24 refutes attribution of accident to panel van conversions

ER24 refuted De Beer’s account of driver complaints and the accident involving three paramedics and a patient.

“Mr De Beer state that drivers were complaining about the road-holding ability of our vehicles. This statement is not true and we have no record of this,” ER24 said.

“He continues to state that shortly after this an incident occurred, three paramedics and a patient were killed. The figures used are also incorrect.”

“This information is not true and his statement implies that they died as a result of a poorly or illegally converted vehicles,” the company said.

“The only incident we know of was when an ambulance crashed into the side of a coal truck in Mpumalanga where our medics and patients died.”

ER24 said the case was investigated by the local authorities and found that the coal truck crossed the road by doing a U-turn in a dark area, leaving little to no possible reaction for the driver at the time.

It added that this incident was not the result of an illegally converted vehicle.

“ER24 also did not use this incident to scrap the so-called illegal vehicles from our fleet,” the company said.

“Our management has been busy with the process since 2009 as we phased out these vehicles from service providers. We do not have any illegally converted vehicles in our fleet.”

Toyota questions

MyBroadband asked Toyota South Africa for comment on the homologation of its converted panel van ambulances, as well as its progress on getting illegally-converted taxis off South African roads.

The questions we sent to the company regarding De Beer’s investigation are below.

Regarding the ambulances supplied to the Northern Cape emergency services

  • Did Toyota fulfil this tender to provide Quantum vehicles to emergency personnel in the Northern Cape?
  • Were these vehicles converted three-seater panel vans as shown by the JTFP model number on their licence discs?
  • If so, why did Toyota South Africa supply panel vans to be converted into ambulances instead of reinforced passenger-carrying Quantum models?
  • Was this ambulance design homologated and was the vehicle builder conducting the conversion supplied with the required layout diagram?

Regarding Toyota’s homologation process for converted taxis and ambulances

  • Does Toyota South Africa require approval from Toyota Japan for the homologation of vehicles in South Africa? If so, does it have permission to supply three-seater panel vans to builders for conversion into passenger-carrying vehicles?
  • Has Toyota supplied panel vans to vehicle builders and dealers that deal exclusively in passenger taxis? Were these panel vans converted to taxis?
  • During the investigation outlined in the Public Protector’s report, Toyota South Africa produced a list which detailed dealers and buyers who had purchased Quantum panel vans and converted them into passenger taxis. These buyers each had Toyota Buyer Numbers and Mr De Beer said they were acknowledged to have converted Toyota Quantum panel vans into passenger carriers. For how long did Toyota South Africa continue to sell panel vans to these dealers after it was first alerted to the illegal conversion problem in 2005?
  • Following the direction of the Public Protector’s report that Toyota South Africa take urgent steps to remove these vehicles from South African roads, what steps has the company taken to prevent the use of illegally-converted Quantum taxis?

Toyota’s Comment

Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) told MyBroadband that is has a channel to facilitate the purchase of converted ambulances.

“The ambulances purchased through the appropriate TSAM channel conform to the safety requirements as specified by the NRCS and independent durability and safety tests conducted by Toyota verify this – please note this was not a requirement of the NRCS but something that Toyota undertook of its own volition,” the company said.

It added that these tests verify – among other factors – the safety of the NRCS-specified conversions.

“There is also a perception in some of the media articles that the loading area of our panel vans is constructed of thinner, inferior material to the taxi derivative – this is not the case,” TSAM said.

“Where the two differ is in relation to door openings, window apertures and anchorage points.”

“With reference to the latter, provision is made for extra weld spots to provide appropriate seat belt anchorage points when a vehicle is ordered as an ambulance through the TSAM channel.”

“We cannot comment on vehicles that have been purchased ‘outside’ the aforementioned channel,” TSAM said.

Toyota said the conversion of panel vans to ambulances should not be confused with the illegal practice of converting panel vans to taxis, which it said it has repeatedly made clear since 2010.

Below is the full statement from Toyota South Africa Motors.

Following recent media reports questioning the safety and legality of Toyota Quantum/Hiace panel vans converted to ambulances, Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) would like to reassure its customers, business and industry stakeholders that due process is always followed when retailing legally-converted ambulances, as the safety of all Toyota-badged vehicles as well as the protection of its operators and occupants remains a top priority for the organisation.

The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS*) has specified very strict guidelines for the conversion of panel vans to ambulances. In addition, TSAM has independently undertaken a battery of durability tests of the adapted vehicle to ensure that it supports all the safety requirements as stipulated by the NRCS. (Please note that the aforementioned panel van conversions are only permissible for ambulance applications and should not be confused with the illegal practice of converting panel vans to people carriers i.e. taxis.)

When a customer places an order for a fully-converted ambulance, TSAM facilitates the conversion by means of one of two approved service providers, who carry out the work in accord with the necessary NRCS-based safety requirements. Only after the NRCS has assessed specification documents and physically examined the converted vehicle, can it be reclassified as an ambulance capable of carrying passengers. Any ambulance labeled as a “panel van” on the licence disc is not certified to carry passengers in the rear.

Please note that in the event that conversions are undertaken by non-approved suppliers, TSAM cannot guarantee or comment on the safety and legality of these conversions.

TSAM would also like to emphasise that the conversion of panel vans to ambulances is common practice around the world.

*The NRCS is mandated to administer compulsory specifications as to the fitness of vehicles offered for sale and use on public roads.

Below are the communications, police reports, photos, and other information detailing De Beer’s investigation into illegal Quantum panel van conversions.

Toyota Dealership Letter

Toyota letter 2005

Police reports

Police Report 1

Police Report 2

Police Report 3

Police Report 4

Ambulance licence disk

Quantum ambulance licence disk

Ambulance crashes

Ambulance crash (1)

Ambulance crash (2)

Ambulance crash (3)

Ambulance crash 1

Ambulance crash 2

ambulance crash 3

Ambulance crash (4)

Ambulance crash (5)

Ambulance crash (6)

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“Coffins on wheels” – The dangerous ambulances on South African roads