The message underlines that of western TC Kevin Rooney at the Freight Transport Association’s (FTA) Transport Manager conference last year.
Acknowledging that operators had been investing in roller brake testing, the TCs were pleased to note that this was improving brake performance at annual test.
“In 2017/18, there were almost 10,000 fewer failures for service brake performance at commercial vehicle annual tests than in 2013/14,” said the report.
“The biggest improvement we have seen is for trailers – in the same period, an extra 5,500 passed their brake performance test the first time.”
However, while the TCs praised these “really encouraging” results, they insisted that there was “more to achieve” – not least because “brake failures are still dominating the top ten reasons for MOT failure”.
There were 22,000 failures for service brake performance in 2017/18; and the TCs highlighted a range of commonly recurring issues relating to brake tests.
One such issue was that of periodic maintenance inspection (PMI) brake checks being conducted on unladen vehicles and trailers with wheels locking at very low brake efforts; another was test printouts saying ‘pass’ where it was clear one or more brakes were not working properly.
Operators and transport managers failing to understand the information on the printout was a further bugbear, as was the issue of technicians conducting brake tests failing to identify potential serious safety concerns.
TCs also highlighted a general failure to grasp that the standards applied at PMIs should actually be higher than minimum annual test requirements.
As in the previous year, the TCs from the English traffic areas combined their once individual reports into a single, collective narrative, covering the twelve months to the end of March 2019. The Scottish and Welsh TCs reported separately.
Further issues raised by the English TCs included the fact that many of the operators appearing at public inquiries were doing so because of issues over the legal entity holding the operator licence.
Commonly, a sole trader might be advised by his accountant to form a limited company, but they might not realise that the O-licence could not simply be transferred to the new legal entity. Equally, there was ignorance around the fact that an O-licence of a company in liquidation could not be transferred to another business with common directors.
This, the TCs pointed out, ought to be clear from examination of the O-licence discs themselves, as they had the words ‘not transferable’ printed in bold on the back!
They also caution against false ‘self-employment’, describing it as a curse in the industry.
“It is simply a device for operators to evade their responsibilities to pay national insurance and pension contributions and thereby obtain a competitive advantage.
“Operators should pay drivers on a proper PAYE basis if they are employed. Being self-employed is not some sort of lifestyle choice; the nature of the employment relationship is determined only by the terms and conditions under which the driver works. A driver can only be said to be truly self-employed if, for instance, they turn up with their own vehicle and have unfettered scope to substitute another driver for themselves.”
Operators also needed to check that nominated transport managers were doing their jobs. Performance indicators would warn if the transport manager was failing. They could not just be left to get on with it; their effectiveness had to be monitored.
“A transport manager based in Spain who turns up once a month and purports to run everything else by mobile phone will find it near impossible to exercise continuous and effective management of the fleet,” the TCs observed.
“Paying a transport manager £120 per month in cash is in effect paying a highly-qualified person a lower hourly rate than a dog walker.”
They also highlighted the importance of the proper use of driver defect and PMI reports, pointing out that some operators were still using PMI report sheets printed in the 1970s!
Efforts should be made to reconcile driver defect sheets with PMI reports: it was not acceptable for a vehicle to have defects found at PMI that should have been picked up by drivers.
“Checking paperwork is the overarching lesson here. Has the vehicle been signed off as roadworthy? Does the PMI record dozens of defects such as broken lights, mirrors or bald tyres? Is there an endless series of driver defect reports blissfully recording ‘nil defects’ when multiple prohibitions are issued at the roadside, or when MOT failures and long lists of defects in the PMI reports tell a completely different story?
“Good transport managers and operators pick this up with their drivers: they tackle the issues – they do not wait for us to point out the problem at a public inquiry,” the TCs wrote.
Operators were still being encountered who were running vehicles with digital tachographs but lacked a card to access the instruments, and did not have the equipment to download drivers’ cards – a scenario the TCs found “astonishing”.
“It is difficult to comprehend how any operator or transport manager can expect to run a compliant and effective vehicle operation without access to this data,” they remarked.
“They are totally blind to the use of their vehicles and what their drivers are doing.”
Others did download the data, but then did nothing with it. Or, they generated infringement reports and handed them to drivers to sign without discussion.
“We have even seen these reports falsified. Some operators think it is better to make a document look like it has been signed by drivers in the past even when the report is date stamped from two days before it is shown to us,” they wrote.
“Being honest and transparent is the only approach operators should take. We want licence holders to come clean about their failings rather than try to make it look like things were done properly. The consequences of falsifying paperwork are, inevitably, much worse.”
Driving entitlement and licences also needed to be regularly checked.
“A photocopy of the driver’s card from two years ago when he or she was first employed is not good enough. Some operators do not even undertake that check, assuming previous experience of driving an HGV or PSV for another business means they must have the correct licence to drive commercial vehicles,” the TCs warned.
Meanwhile, the high number of bridge strike incidents was concerning to the TCs.
“Disappointingly, thorough risk-based route planning seems to be a responsibility which operators are leaving to drivers. We have seen instances of drivers not being given conversion charts and also being left to plan routes without access to information that would identify the location of low bridges,” they wrote.
“It is time for operators to treat this seriously and take responsibility, not just leave it to drivers. From the cases referred to us so far, we are astonished by operators’ lackadaisical approach to the prevention of bridge strikes. Beyond the road safety issues, there are huge consequential costs in terms of checking and repair, as well as delays to rail travel which impact passengers and commuters.
“Regulatory action is a real possibility for those operators who fail to take action, as well as for drivers.”
Scotland TC Claire Gilmore had only just taken office after the retirement of Joan Aitken OBE in February 2019, when her report was written.
She focused on the need for vocational drivers to drive safely and behave professionally, noting that she had already held conduct hearings covering hours offences, speeding and mobile phone use.
She also raised questions about drivers being denied use of facilities at designated stops, which she deemed “unacceptable”.
“Drivers, like all other workers, are entitled to safe and adequate facilities for rest and refreshment in the course of their duties. These are matters of prime importance, both in terms of personal dignity, and road safety,” she wrote, adding: “I sincerely hope that progress is made in early course and I shall monitor the situation with interest.”
Wales traffic commissioner Nick Jones made his final annual report prior to his compulsory retirement on the grounds of age.
For most of his tenure in Wales, TC Jones has been without a permanent office in the country, and he was pleased to note that: “The Welsh Government is funding the provision of good value-for-money office accommodation in Caernarfon, with space for administrative support staff and to hold some hearings. Gwynedd Council has also been helpful in this initiative.
“Additionally the Welsh Government has provided excellent facilities in central Cardiff for the TC. Current arrangements in South Wales do not provide adequate accommodation for public inquiry and driver conduct hearings but within a couple of years or so there will also be first rate tribunal facilities in Pontypridd for TC hearings and training.
“The new facilities in Wales will assist in addressing long-standing issues and ensure access to justice within the commercial vehicle sectors and communities of Wales. At the time of writing, bilingual support staff are in the process of being recruited – again this will provide a much-needed boost to improving both road safety and fair competition in Wales.”
He also lamented that a long-standing lack of locally-based staff had prevented him from operating as effectively as he might have done.
TC Jones closed his final report with a tribute to the professional drivers of Wales: “I wish to record my thanks to the many excellent drivers of buses and trucks. The overwhelming majority of drivers of commercial vehicles undertake their tasks admirably.”
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