Regulators take on negligent fleets

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Fleet operators who fall foul of the rules relating to the licensing and regulation of heavy goods  vehicles, buses and coaches will end up before Britain’s traffic commissioners – even if that  non-compliance relates to their vans. Appointed by the secretary of state for transport, traffic commissioners are responsible for the registration of local bus services and regulatory action against drivers of HGVs and public service vehicles (PSVs).

There are seven commissioners regulating eight geographical areas, including specific commissioners for Wales and Scotland. In Scotland, the traffic commissioner also has responsibility for the registration and regulation of local bus services, taxi fare scale appeals and the appointment of adjudicators to consider appeals in respect of decriminalised parking offences. They are assisted by 13 deputy traffic commissioners, who preside over a number of public inquiries and consider licensing applications.

However, while the primary focus of traffic commissioners are HGVs and PSVs, O-licence holders who operate light commercial vehicles (LCVs) on their fleet could also find themselves in trouble if they are caught with a defective van. Senior traffic commissioner Beverley Bell, who is also the traffic commissioner for the north west of England, has previously warned fleets that run both vans and trucks, and therefore have an O-licence, that this licence could be revoked if either vehicle type is found to be faulty.

Bell told Commercial Fleet that truck and van operators can avoid falling foul of the rules by implementing a safety policy. “A simple daily walk round each vehicle by the driver is the foundation stone of any such policy,” she says. “This way you’ll avoid many of the major problems that happen.

“Do simple things like this, along with focusing on health and safety and driver training, and you’ll reduce accident rates, get more deliveries done on time, lower your insurance bill and gain better profits.”

Costing £13 million per year, the traffic commissioner service oversees 77,732 hauliers running 337,570 trucks and 9,155 passenger operators with 94,552 buses and coaches. 

Compliance checks and disciplinary action

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), as the main enforcement agency, undertakes the majority of compliance checks that underpin investigative and disciplinary actions that the commissioners may subsequently take.

Traffic commissioners, who are appointed until the age of 65, rely on 170 support staff to carry out administrative duties such as processing and issuing licences and renewals. That administrative support is provided by the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC), which is staffed by DVSA employees.

The aim is for the safe, reliable and fair transport of goods and passengers, with traffic commissioners performing the dual role of regulator and judiciary.

They have the power to call operators to account at a public inquiry – around 1,800 of which are held each year. Here, evidence can be produced and the commissioner will determine an outcome and make a ruling.

However, operators may appeal against the finding of a commissioner to the Upper Tribunal – an independent panel of judges appointed by the Ministry of Justice.

A case may be instigated as a result of routine inspections at the roadside or at an operator’s premises, which would show poor maintenance or practices relating to drivers’ hour offences. Such investigations can be prompted by intelligence received. Normally, DVSA staff employed in the OTC will collate evidence and put forward a case for a potential inquiry to a commissioner.

Stiff penalties including disqualification

The penalties are significant. A traffic commissioner can decide to: refuse to grant a licence; vary an existing licence; attach conditions to a licence; grant a licence allowing fewer vehicles than the number applied for; impose financial penalties; end or suspend an existing licence; disqualify an individual or a company from having a licence; and disqualify transport managers.

However, how the service is delivered could change if recommendations made in a recent review are implemented. Conducted in two parts – the first by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the second by JMP Consultants – the triennial review of the traffic commissioners was published in March.

A more efficient service by engaging industry

The DfT says the service could become more efficient through better coordination of activities in the judicial role and in engaging with industry. It concluded that there is a need for more coordinated regulation and has vowed to work with the senior traffic commissioner and individual commissioners in drafting guidance and aligning policy delivery.

In addition, it says it will work with DVSA, the senior traffic commissioner and individual commissioners in addressing areas of service to stakeholders, resources and expenditure, while improving the level of financial information available.  

The second part of the review, which consulted with outside bodies such as Freight Transport Association, Road Haulage Association and British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, found a number of strengths, challenges and weaknesses. The main issues were concerning the practicalities of management, governance and processes. In particular, it said “ongoing tensions around governance issues” and the interaction between the commissioners, DVSA and DfT can act as “a distraction”.

It continued: “Much of this stems from the commissioners’ desire to ensure they act completely independently, free from any external influences. While this is important, commissioners cannot operate in a vacuum and need to collaborate as a group to ensure some consistency in decision-making. Equally, they have to be accountable to someone and need to have the support of staff in the OTC to help them fulfil their duties.”

Currently, much of the staff support is provided through a network of traffic area offices, but the report states that, while this is useful from a local knowledge perspective, the maintenance of small teams is difficult to sustain.

Local area offices are partly justified by the area-based licensing system that exists. However, most of the organisations the report’s authors spoke to said they considered this to be outdated and there should be a move to a single licence covering the whole of Great Britain.

Processes and procedures were described as “bureaucratic and outdated”. However, it welcomed the efforts of the DVSA to introduce new electronic systems that will help to address this, adding it will be important to ensure that processes are streamlined. Traffic commissioners have been given a number of different roles, not all to do with industry regulation and safety. Some are purely administrative and the report states that these could be undertaken by other agencies.

Focusing on non-compliant operators

The report also noted that, while commissioners do engage well with industry, these activities tend to be with generally compliant operators. Alastair Peoples, chief executive of the DVSA, admits that this is an issue for the service.

He says: “We do not want to be concentrating on the compliant; we want to be concentrating on the non-compliant.”

However, an important challenge is to find ways of reaching those operators who are non-compliant.

Meanwhile, the main recommendations in the triennial review were for a clarification and formalisation of the governance arrangements and interactions between the traffic commissioners, DVSA and DfT, with better definition of roles and responsibilities and lines of reporting.

Coupled with this, it recommends that commissioners work together as a group under the direction of the senior traffic commissioner, with OTC staff running programmes as directed by commissioners. It also says that the introduction of a single licence covering Great Britain would bring some simplification of the system. It would also give an impetus to review the continuing need for area-based offices, whereby some centralisation could occur.

In parallel, more delegation for granting licences could be given to OTC staff to help speed up licence application processes. Achieving greater awareness of the regulatory activities of the traffic commissioners is also important. Various measures to achieve this are recommended, including the use of new operator seminars.

Desire to modernise

For their part, the traffic commissioners have vowed to modernise the operator licence regime and to reduce the regulatory burden on the compliant commercial vehicle industry. They say they will work with DVSA on the delivery of the Operator Licence Compliance System as well as enhancing traffic commissioners’ and staff knowledge, competence, resilience and capacity to deliver a consistent and efficient operator licence regime.

They will also concentrate on regulating those drivers and operators who pose the greatest risk to road safety, by working with other agencies, especially the DVSA to deliver improved value and effectiveness of the regulatory role. In addition, they will work to ensure a consistent regulatory outcome for all drivers who commit infringements.

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