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Everything you need to know about Operation Lift – and your modified 4WD

Every responsible 4WD owner is concerned about Operation Lift. What exactly is it and how do you keep your 4WD legal?

1. What is Operation Lift?

It is a joint operation between the Queensland Transport and Main Roads (TMR) authority and Queensland Police. In their words:

“Operation Lift is a training and enforcement initiative, conducted by South East Queensland officers from Road Policing Command (RPC). The operation is aimed at identifying vehicles with illegal modifications, which compromise the stability of the vehicle and subsequent safety of all road-users.”

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2. How does Operation Lift work?

From Queensland Police:

“As part of the operation, officers conduct roadside inspections, education and enforcement of Transport Operations (Road Use Management – Vehicle Standards and Safety) Regulation 2010. A three-day training event was conducted on the Gold Coast from Monday September 3 to Wednesday September 5 in response to an increase in non-complying vehicles – predominantly four-wheel drives – being used on Queensland roads. Approximately 35 QPS officers from across the South Eastern Region worked in conjunction with 10 Transport and Main Roads inspectors to stage static and mobile interception sites across the Gold Coast District.”

The police say this about the first week of Operation Lift: “during the operation conducted on the Gold Coast last week, 81 Infringements were issued to vehicles for offences relating to defects illegal modifications.”

Vehicle defect check list
3. Why does Operation Lift exist?

I’ve asked this question and haven’t gotten a direct answer, other than the line about “…identifying vehicles with illegal modifications, which compromise the stability of the vehicle and subsequent safety of all road-users”.

Personally, I’m not so sure about this because no facts have been offered to support the statement. Specifically, I’d like some statistics proving that these illegally modified vehicles are over-represented in road traffic accidents because of their modifications. However, illegal modifications are illegal and those who drive illegally modified cars deserve to be caught. Which brings us to…

4. What is a lift?

A ‘lift’ is an increase in ride height of a vehicle, applied to 4WDs so clearances are improved. There are three basic types of lift: body, tyres and suspension.

A body lift is when the body of a vehicle is lifted relative to the chassis. These are quite rare because you can only do them on separate-chassis vehicles such as utes, and the ability to provide extra clearances is limited. Generally, body lifts are not legal unless specifically engineered.

Increasing the diameter of a tyre also lifts a vehicle, by half the tyre diameter increase. So if you increase the tyre diameter by 50mm, you get a 25mm lift.

A suspension lift is where you change the springs for taller versions, or stiffer versions so they don’t compress as much, or a combination of both. The result is an increased ride height. Suspension lifts can be done on any vehicle, whether the springs are coil, leaf or torsion bar.

5. What exactly are the legally permitted lift-related modifications?

Road rules and roadworthy regulations are state responsibilities, which unfortunately means that every state has its own rules. Below are excerpts from three representative states:

Queensland

Without ESC – A vehicle lift up to and including 75mm combining both suspension lift and tyre diameter increase (maximum suspension lift 50mm, maximum tyre diameter increase 50mm) is acceptable under self-certification.

A vehicle lift between 76mm and 125mm inclusive, combining a suspension lift, a tyre diameter increase and a body lift (maximum suspension lift 50mm, maximum tyre diameter increase 50mm, maximum body lift 50mm) requires certification and testing by an Approved Person.

With ESC – A suspension lift up to and including 50mm is acceptable under self-certification. A vehicle lift over 50mm or due to a combination of any other lift (tyres, or body blocks) requires certification and testing by an Approved Person.

Please Note: The above mentioned maximum tyre diameter tyre increase is for 4WD off-road vehicles. A passenger car or passenger car derivatives must not increase their tyre diameter by more than 15mm.

Translation: you can have a 75mm lift in your 4WD if it doesn’t have ESC. If it does, then you can have a 50mm suspension lift but no tyre diameter increase.

Victoria

13.3.1 This option allows a combination of suspension lift and the fitting of larger diameter tyres that results in a total lift of 75mm without the need for testing and certification normally required for VSB14 for lifts above 50mm provided the following requirements are met:

The vehicle’s suspension may be raised up to 50mm provided at least 2/3 of the original suspension travel in either direction is retained.

Only commercially available suspension kits may be used.

13.7 For modification codes contained in Section LS of VSB14, evidence should be obtained either from the vehicle manufacturer or through testing to determine the impact on the ESC system. To remain within the scope of this Section of VSB14 a vehicle fitted with ESC must not be modified if the operation of the ESC is affected unless the ESC system is adjusted to restore its original operational characteristics.

Translation: a 75mm lift is permitted if you don’t have ESC. If you do have ESC then no lift, or prove it isn’t affected – which is not easy.

 New South Wales

3.1 Changes that do not require assessing or certification

2 Minor modifications: In addition to the above, the following are not considered to be significant modifications and do NOT require assessing or certification:

Modifications to the ride height up to 75mm that incorporate a maximum change in the suspension of 50mm, and/or an increase in the diameter of the wheel and tyre combination of up to 50mm.

If a vehicle is equipped with electronic stability control (ESC), the ESC must remain functional after the modification. After a significant modification, as identified in this Manual, the ESC must be checked as part of the licensed certifier’s assessment.

Translation: a 75mm lift is fine regardless of ESC, as it is classed as a minor modification. Yay for NSW, and their recent legislation changes!

So as you can see, not only do rules vary from state to state, they also vary depending on whether or not your vehicle has ESC.

6. So, how wide can you go?

There are many, many regulations relating to vehicle modifications, but one more relevant one is to do with the track of a vehicle, which is the distance between the centre of the tyres on an axle, as per the diagram, NOT the width of a vehicle.

Most states permit 50% wider tyres than stock, provided all other regulations are complied with.

However, in order for wider tyres to fit, particularly on the front of independently sprung utes, many people will need to run wider offset wheels. The wheel offset is the distance between the wheel centre link and where the wheel is attached to the hub. Usually the two are not one and the same.

7. Wheel track case study

In the case of a stock Ranger, the mount point is 55mm to the outside of a centreline, so that’s a +55 or positive 55mm offset. To widen the track, that needs to be reduced, for example to +30mm. That changes the track by 55-30 = 25mm x 2 = 50mm, which makes the wheel stick out further, so you can fit a wider tyre. You’ll then find the tyres stick out, a problem typically solved by fitting wheel arch flares.

Most states permit a track change of 50mm wider, so that means your offset change per wheel is 25mm or less.

8. What’s a “75mm lift”?

In the context of the regulations, it means a 50mm suspension lift and a 50mm tyre diameter increase, which provides a 25mm ride height increase.

9. What’s ESC?

ESC is Electronic Stability Control. It is a system that uses a vast array of sensors to constantly figure out whether the car is going where the driver intends, and takes corrective action if it senses things are going wrong. ESC helps by adjusting the braking force of each wheel individually to help steer the car back onto course, and reducing the throttle where required.

ESC is mandatory on all new vehicles, with one or two rare exceptions. This is because it is a proven life-saving technology, right up there with seatbelts and airbags.

ESC should not be confused with traction control, which detects spinning wheels and brakes them. Traction control can be thought of as a subsystem of ESC. Some older vehicles have traction control and no ESC, but all vehicles with ESC have traction control.

10. Why does ESC have an effect on what lift I can have?

In order to operate effectively, the ESC system is calibrated to vehicle characteristics. These include the tyre width and profile, engine, transmission, vehicle dimensions, centre of gravity and much more. A critical input is the wheel speed, as the vehicle must know exactly how fast it is going so it can take the appropriate action. Tyres of different diameters to the original throw out the speed readings, and reduce ESC effectiveness. Some manufacturers even re-calibrate ESC for changes as small as fitting different tyre profiles on the same car, never mind a tyre size change.

That’s the pessimistic, theoretical view. In practice, it’s not that bad, particularly with modern ESC systems. A 50mm tyre diameter increase on a medium to large 4WD is only around a 6% increase, and a 75mm lift isn’t much when you’re talking about a centre of gravity of around 1000mm – not that lifting a vehicle 75mm even raises the centre of gravity by 75mm, thanks not least to unsprung weight.

Basically, the 75mm lift changes aren’t massive, and modern ESC setups are well able to cope with them as they are ‘closed loop’ systems. This means that they keep working until the desired effect is reached, as opposed to simply putting in a control input and calling it good.

To prove the point, the Australian Aftermarket Association has done ESC tests on five lifted 4WD vehicles. In all cases, the modified vehicles easily passed the ESC tests. Basically, there’s now proven evidence that small lifts like 75mm don’t compromise ESC operation, and none that we’ve seen to the contrary.

11. Can I drive a vehicle in Queensland that is legally modified in its home state?

Yes, you can. Mark Bailey, the Queensland Transport Minister, says “a modified vehicle registered in another state or jurisdiction can legally drive in Queensland, provided that vehicle continues to comply with the modifications that were approved in that state or jurisdiction.”

12. Is this a new law in Queensland?

The actual law was, according to the government, enacted in 2012 as a result of various rollovers on Fraser Island. The TMR says “there have been no recent changes to rules for vehicle lifts in Queensland” and “the lower height was implemented in 2012 in response to serious 4WD incidents at locations such as Fraser Island, where there was a spike in fatalities and serious injuries related to rollovers.”

Let’s just ignore the fact that an overloaded, backpacker-driven vehicle on a beach bears no relation to the average Queensland 4WD owner, and move on to the previous regulations, which have been preserved by 4WD Queensland. These say:

A vehicle lift up to and including 75mm combining both suspension lift and tyre diameter increase (maximum suspension lift 50mm, maximum tyre diameter increase 50mm) is acceptable under self-certification.

And, later:

Lowering or Raising of Vehicles: The raising or lowering of a vehicle’s suspension is permitted without specific approval, provided:

…a vehicle fitted with Electronic Stability Control (commonly known as ESC) is not modified if the operation of the ESC is affected, unless the ESC system is adjusted accordingly.

In other words, this is the Victorian approach: 75mm is okay unless you have ESC, in which case you must prove ESC is not affected. Just different words. What we have now is 50mm suspension lift is okay for ESC vehicles, but no tyre diameter increase, and in our view, that’s a change, not a clarification.

We believe that’s because the AAAA’s testing was with vehicles with suspension lifts only, not with larger diameter tyres.

13. Aren’t the Queensland laws going to be changed again soon?

Yes, they are. Minister Bailey confirmed today that:

“These changes, which follow consultation between my department and industry, will raise the maximum lift certifiable in Queensland from 125mm to 150mm.

Importantly, this will make Queensland’s maximum lift, with certification, consistent with the National Code Practice and other states.

For vehicles with Electronic Stability Control (ESC), vehicle owners will be able to raise their vehicles up to 75mm (incorporating a maximum of 50mm suspension and 25mm tyre increase) without certification.

Queensland already allows such a lift for non-ESC equipped vehicles.”

LS9 and LS10 are sections of the National Code of Practice, often known as the NCOP, and it was a worthy attempt to create a national set of vehicle modification regulations. Unfortunately, the states either didn’t implement the NCOP, or partially implemented it. Queensland’s version is the QCOP, the Queensland Code of Practice. From the TMR’s website:

Please Note: Not all parts of the NCOP have been accepted for use in Queensland, with variations applied for certain sections.

So you must read the QCOP for Queensland, not the NCOP. TMR tells us that the QCOP “is a legal document”.

14. So why this crackdown on vehicle lifts when the law is about to be changed?

We have no idea and haven’t been able to get an answer.

15. What vehicles exactly are being targeted?

Seems only the really tall lifts and big tyres are being fined, as in 35-inch tyres and the like. Minister Bailey said on Facebook that “in Operation Lift they didn’t fine the marginal cases but gave them info. Cases that were way over were fined.”

16. What is the industry doing about it?

It has to be said that both the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA) and 4WD Queensland are front and centre on this issue, and have been well before the media storm. MPs Andrew Laming and Nick Dametto are also advocating for change. There’s even a little spat between Laming and Minister Bailey on 4WD Queensland’s Facebook page which, while interesting, is not getting us closer to a resolution.

17. How can I check my vehicle is legally modified?

That’s a big question, but let’s limit it to tyre diameter and suspension lift.

Determine whether or not it has ESC using the guide above, as that will tell you which set of rules apply.

Find the stock tyre size for your vehicle, which will be on the tyre placard around the driver’s door jamb. Let’s say that’s 265/65/17. Doesn’t matter which tyre size you choose, they will all work out to be the same diameter or very close to it.

Calculate the diameter of your stock tyre. The maths for a 265/65/17 is: ((265 x 0.65) x 2) + (17 x 25.4) = 776mm. The official reference for a tyre diameter in Queensland is the National Tyre and Rim Manual, but having checked a couple of diameters in there for tyres, the calculation above is accurate to between 0 to 2mm.

Find the diameter of your current tyres. That’ll be written on the side of the tyre. Let’s say it’s 265/70/17, so ((285 x 0.7) x 2) + (17 x 25.4) = 831mm.

Subtract the difference: 831mm – 776mm = 55mm.

Wheel offset is easy to deal with. If your wheels are factory stock, no worries. If not, look inside the wheel and the offset should be stamped. Work out the difference between that and the stock offset which can be found in various places such as the owner’s handbook or by asking a dealer, and then see if it is 50mm or less. For example, if the factory offset is +50mm, and your aftermarket wheels are +40mm, then that’s 10mm difference x 2 = 20mm, less than 50mm so you’re good to go.

Suspension is a lot more difficult as there’s no easy stock reference. Refer to the suspension manufacturer for the maximum lift amount for that kit when fitted to an otherwise stock vehicle, and if yours has a bunch of accessories on it, then that will compress the suspension a little. Most aftermarket kits aren’t 50mm front and rear, but more like 20-40mm at the front and up to 50mm at the rear.

Whatever your modifications, declare them to your insurance company, although bear in mind that insurance claims are knocked back for illegally modified vehicles if the modifications contributed to the accident, even if the modifications were declared.

18. This is all too confusing, I just want to drive my 4WD legally and safely!

We hear you. Even with an article this long, it’s not possible to get into all the detail needed to fully understand a state’s modification laws as applied to a given vehicle, and sadly, not all aftermarket shops are up to speed on the law either.

What we plan to do here at Unsealed 4X4 is to continue talking directly to those people who make the laws, and passing that information on to our readers. The various authorities have made this modification business a lot harder than it needs to be, but we’ll make it as easy as we can.

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