Updating the way in which O-licence applications are handled and eliminating mountains of cumbersome paperwork have long been key aims of the Traffic Commissioners (TCs).
A lot of progress is being made, says Simon Evans, TC for the North West, and it is largely thanks to VOL, the online Vehicle Operating Licensing system, launched in 2016.
“More than 80% of new applications and variations are now being handled online and we’ll have switched away from paper forms almost completely by the end of 2019,” he says.
Moving to online applications will end one of the difficulties TCs regularly encounter when paperwork is posted in: boxes not being filled in, resulting in forms being rejected because they are incomplete. “It’s a significant problem and results in a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between ourselves and the operator,” Evans says.
With an online form it is impossible for the applicant to progress until all the boxes are complete.
“Our new target is to get the process down from nine weeks to seven, and our desire is to get it down to four weeks,” Evans says.
Freight Transport Association (FTA) members report that VOL is working well, according to head of licensing policy and compliance information James Firth.
“It seems to have been well received, with little negative feedback,” he says. “O-licence administration is in a strong place at present.”
Yet, although the seven-week target may be laudable, it remains an age to wait.
“It still takes far too long,” says Don Porter, head of transport and logistics at Andrews Sykes.
With 120 vans and 4x4s and 30 trucks grossing at up to 26 tonnes, the Wolverhampton-based company rents out air conditioning units, heaters, pumps, chillers and boilers.
“We’re in the 21st century yet we seem to be using a 1970s/1980s approach,” Porter adds.
However, others acknowledge the TCs’ attempts to modernise the process.
Former Countrywide LPG operations director Darren Moor, now a transport industry consultant, says one of the difficulties with a new application is the requirement to advertise it in the right local paper for the area concerned.
In his experience that can be problematic – a reflection, perhaps, of the extent to which local newspapers have closed in recent years.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) also welcomes the effort the TCs and the Department for Transport have put into streamlining the application system, but says there is plenty of room for improvement.
“It’s getting better but there remains quite a lot to be done,” says RHA policy director Duncan Buchanan. “We live in a digital world and it’s still all pretty analogue.”
Call for flexibility
Buchanan believes that flexibility needs to be built into the system. If an operator is applying for relatively minor change, such as being allowed to operate two or three more trucks from a depot, then the application should be dealt with more quickly than it is at present, especially if the operator has a good track record.
Only major changes and new applications should take longer.
“The right balance has to be struck,” he says.
An aim close to being achieved is for public inquiries to be held within 12 weeks of the TC deciding there is a case to answer. “The desire is for the matter to be dealt with as soon as possible after it happened,” Evans says.
If you receive a calling-in letter telling you to attend a public inquiry it must be taken seriously. Professional advice should be sought promptly.
“Any failure to attend a public inquiry makes the revocation of the licence concerned highly probable,” Evans says. “The vast majority of public inquiries occur because an operator has failed to adhere to the undertakings made when he took the licence out.”
In his view, it would be no bad thing if O-licence holders re-read those undertakings regularly.
Being aware of the undertakings is not just the responsibility of whoever is running the transport fleet, says Moor. The directors of the company concerned need to be aware of them too; and aware that loss of the O-licence could be the death-knell of their business.
There are a little more than 35,000 standard national and international hire-and-reward O-licences in force along with just over 37,500 restricted O-licences. The latter are held by own-account operators who use their trucks solely to transport their own goods, carry nothing that belongs to third parties and, unlike hire-and-reward operators, they are not obliged to employ a qualified transport manager.
The danger with restricted licence holders is they may view themselves as, say, widget makers first and foremost with fleet management activities coming a distant second.
“The number of instances where they say ‘I am not a transport operator’ seems to be receding though,” Evans says.
The anomaly that they do not need to employ a qualified transport manager should be addressed, however. A truck is a truck no matter what licence is held; and the consequences of a driver losing control of an eight-wheeler because the brakes have failed are likely to be the same, too.
“I find it a bit strange that a qualified transport manager is not required if you hold a restricted licence and, in my view, you should have one,” says Porter. “For example, you have to adhere to the same legislation so far as maintenance is concerned no matter what licence is held.”
Buchanan adds: “At the RHA we believe in the real world the distinction between a restricted licence and a standard national/international licence is spurious. Anybody operating a lorry should employ a qualified transport manager.”
While vocational drivers are obliged to renew their Certificate of Professional Competence every five years, no statutory obligation is imposed on transport managers to refresh their knowledge. Evans and his colleagues would like this to change, and believe managers should be obliged to update themselves as regularly as their drivers.
If a transport manager appears at a public inquiry then the TC is likely to ask him how he keeps abreast of the latest transport legislation. The same question is likely to be asked when a licence is renewed, especially if an individual has recently returned to the industry having not worked as a transport manager for a few years.
“‘I read the trade press regularly’ is unlikely to be viewed as an acceptable answer,” Evans remarks.
In some cases, TCs may direct transport managers to attend refresher courses and seem increasingly inclined to do so.
Senior TC Richard Turfitt recently said transport managers and other responsible persons should be able to demonstrate to TCs that they are able to meet their statutory responsibilities through professional development. That is especially the case if they have not been acting for an operator during the past five years, their qualification is more than 10 years old, or if their ability to exercise continuous and effective management is under consideration at a public inquiry.
Turfitt was introducing the latest revised statutory documents following a consultation which closed last August.
“The majority of the changes are dictated by case law,” he stated.
They include greater emphasis on the importance of accurate applications and clearer guidance on what will happen if someone uses an operator’s licence without authority; a practice known as ‘fronting’.
“It is important we get the balance right so irresponsible people, who ignore the safety of other road users, do not put compliant businesses at a disadvantage,” he added.
Fit for the highway
Published guidance is available to operators on what they need to do to ensure their trucks are fit to be on the highway.
“We’ve been working with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) on further updating the Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness,” Evans says. “It provides compliance advice to operators in a meaningful and understandable way.”
Included in the advice is a strong recommendation that measured brake tests are conducted once a quarter on a rolling road. They should also be carried out as part of the periodic statutory safety inspection.
Drivers Hours compliance remains a perennial concern.
“One thing I’m finding is that drivers can be confused about the way in which they have to comply with the Working Time Directive as well as the Drivers’ Hours rules and how the two sets of requirements cross over,” says Porter.
“It is of particular concern to me because our drivers do more physical work than driving.”
One area that Porter believes needs revisiting is the financial standing requirement imposed on a business with an O-licence. The TCs have to be sure the business has enough funds available to allow it to maintain its trucks properly.
The revised levels which came into effect on January 1, 2019, for standard national and international licence applicants are £8,000 in funds (previously £7,950) for the first vehicle and £4,450 (previously £4,400) for each additional one. Operators making variation applications will be required to demonstrate financial standing for their existing fleet and any additional authorisations against the new levels.
No change has been made to the far lower financial standing requirement imposed on restricted licence holders; £3,100 for the first vehicle and £1,700 for each extra vehicle.
Porter believes that the requirement is outdated and needs to be revisited.
While it may have been appropriate in the days when companies owned their trucks outright and maintained them in their own workshops, that pattern by no means applies to everybody in 2019, he feels.
Treat vans like you treat your trucks
Obtain an O-licence and you have to pay a fee. TC Simon Evans believes fee reform is overdue given that a company which runs one truck pays the same as one that runs a fleet. “I think there is a view in the industry that this cannot be right,” he says.
Light commercial vehicles (LCVs) grossing up to 3.5 tonnes are not specified on O-licences. However, there is an argument that says the O-licence threshold should be dropped to three tonnes, given the number of vans grossing at 3.0-3.5 tonnes that fail their Class 7 MOT.
Such a change would have to be made by legislators.
“My view is that operators who run light as well as heavy goods vehicles should treat them equally as far as compliance is concerned,” says Evans.
Van drivers should be obliged to carry out daily walk-around checks, for example, in the same way truck drivers are expected to.
Applying the entire panoply of O-licensing to all 3.0-3.5-tonne operators would impose a significant administrative burden, and would come as a shock to SMEs unfamiliar with the regime.
However, there could be a case for imposing certain elements of it, says Don Porter – the legislation regarding the use of tachographs to monitor Drivers’ Hours compliance, for example.
Tackling the hot topics
In recent months, Traffic Commissioners have been homing in on the use of AdBlue emulators in trucks and have been taking action against operators who have had them fitted.
Their use means the system fitted to reduce harmful NOx emissions is by-passed, making a mockery of the legislation.
“It’s been the hot topic of the past year,” says TC Simon Evans. And it continues to be a priority.
The use of AdBlue emulators is, among other things, a flagrant breach of the rules governing the clean air zones that are gradually being rolled out across the UK.
Evans is also concerned by the extent to which truck drivers are continuing to use hand-held mobile phones while at the wheel, despite the inherent dangers.
Something else TCs are addressing is the age of the tyres fitted to some trucks and trailers, especially if the tyres happen to be more than 10 years old.