Landmark ruling of operator licensing legislation for trenchless technology vehicles

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A landmark ruling in the trenchless technology industry has resulted in an important clarification and interpretation of legislation that affects vehicle operators.

Beaver tail vehicles required for directional drilling must now be specified on an operator licence, in accordance with a decision by the Deputy Traffic Commissioner (DTC) in December. The news comes with a stark warning from the legal community to relevant vehicle operators that they must ensure they are fully compliant. 

Eco Drill (England) is a leading provider of directional drilling and utilities solutions in the UK. Its fleet includes beaver tail vehicles, which have mixing tanks permanently fixed to the bed of the vehicle, and which also carry drilling rigs - which dismount when in use, but which use fluids pumped by the mixing tanks and can only be operated when attached to them.

Prior to the case there had been much debate as to whether such vehicles were or were not exempt from the operator licence regime.

The company must now specify such vehicles on its operator’s licence and ensure they are utilised in accordance with the provisions of the licence. Those companies which operate such vehicles but don’t have operators’ licences will need to obtain licences as a matter of urgency to avoid serious regulatory repercussions which could affect their ability to obtain a licence in the future and could lead to the risk of vehicles being impounded.

Richard Wadkin is an expert in road transport law at top 200 corporate law firm Shulmans LLP and represented Eco Drill before the DTC. The company refused to agree to give an undertaking to specify its vehicles on its O-licence and instead sought clarification of the legislation from the DTC.

He said: “The question of whether particular types of vehicles are exempt from the operator licensing regime is important in certain industries and is certainly important in the directional drilling business.

“Until now, many operators have thought that they are able to use exemptions contained in the Regulations which they believe apply to their business and which would mean they do not have to comply with the rules set out under a Goods Vehicle Operator’s Licence.

“The decision by the Deputy Traffic Commissioner helps to clarify that, despite the fixing of appliances to vehicles, when also carrying other equipment, including associated drilling rigs, operators must have an operator’s licence and are required to comply with the relevant rules without exception. By determining its position, and unless a contrary view is taken by a higher court, the legislation is now clear for the whole industry.”

Transport consultants at OLMC believe the decision from the DTC will be a great help to operators in providing clarity in this complex area.

However, a spokesman said: “This clarification also restricts the ability for operators who have been operating under the perceived exemption.

“There are many drilling rigs in operation that are a power source and relocated by goods vehicles - this clarification will now require a number of such operators to either apply for a goods vehicle operators’ licence, thus becoming fully compliant, or to increase operator licence margins on current licences. Either route will be at a cost to the business.

“It is now important that DVSA apply this ‘clarification’ across the sector to ensure there are no unfair advantages gained through non-compliance, in turn disadvantaging those operators who do take steps to implement this decision within their operation.”

Reacting to the decision, Scott Williams, managing director for Eco Drill said: “The clarity regarding the need for an operator’s licence provides better scope for operators such as ourselves to operate comfortably and appropriately in line with legislation.

“Unfortunately, it is still the case that many others in the business are operating under the perceived exception – it’s very important to the industry that they know and adhere to the view of the Deputy Traffic Commissioner, invest in the appropriate operator’s licence and in doing so ensure affected businesses are competing on a level playing field.”

The case did not examine the rules relating to other aspects of a vehicle’s operation, such as driver licences, excise duty and tachograph and drivers’ hours regulations, however the operator licence ruling provides a timely reminder for managers to review these elements as well which are all subject to different provisions.

Wadkin concluded: “It should be noted that in a recent case, a driver was prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service for not having a correct driver’s licence when driving a beaver tail vehicle fitted with mixing tanks and carrying a drill rig.

“We successfully argued on his behalf that an appropriate exemption applied and the case was discontinued with costs awarded against the Crown. However, considering the more recent operator licence case, it is not to say that such exemptions will always be supported and the authorities are likely to tighten up on enforcement in this area.”

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