Thursday 22 October 2020

TCs address Covid-19 crisis in annual report

The latest annual report of the traffic commissioners (TCs) is dominated by the impact that the Covid-19 crisis has had on transport in general and enforcement and licensing activities in general.

Just as with the wider industry, plans have been cancelled or postponed and contingencies put in place; indeed, the report’s cover, emblematic of the times we are living through, features a screenshot of the TC team taking part in a remote meeting.

In his foreward, senior traffic commissioner (STC) Richard Turfitt, pictured, writes of the TCs’ own response to lockdown: “We have demonstrated a flexibility to meet the requirements of industry. That response is a credit to the individual commissioners, the strength of our team, and to the individuals supporting us.”

But he added: “That pales compared to the efforts of individuals on the front-line. The mental health impact from the pandemic has yet to be fully felt, but those of us stuck at home will have a new-found respect for the isolation of long-distance drivers. The country has relied on the regulated industries to deliver key personnel and goods in support of the national effort and our economy.”

Maintaining a satisfactory degree of supervision over freight and passenger operators in crisis conditions presented clear challenges. STC Turfitt reports how evolving guidance was issued through the crisis to operators who suddenly found themselves without access to their named maintenance provider, or facing cashflow difficulties that would threaten their financial standing.

Experience previously gained by DVSA’s Remote Enforcement Office in developing desk-based assessments proved useful in measuring operators’ compliance performance without necessarily having to visit premises.

Nick Denton, the West Midlands TC and the commissioners’ lead on external training standards and assessment, had worked to develop approaches for remote training for Driver CPC when the traditional classroom approach was not available.

Where registered bus services needed to be changed, this was permitted to happen at short notice, and with the usual fees being waived.

All public inquiries and hearings listed to 29 May were postponed and, inevitably, there is now a backlog. Remote hearings have been trialled, but TC Turfitt writes, “There is very limited application to this tribunal due to the nature of our cases.

“The main barrier to the widespread use of virtual hearings for public inquiries (PIs) is the nature of the PIs themselves. They are heavily paper-based with substantial evidence produced mostly on the day of the hearing. The level of paperwork and absence of tribunal rules will remain a block on any form of remote hearing where additional evidence may be produced as the expense of additional adjournments would outstrip any potential savings.

“Even before the lockdown, traffic commissioners had trialled video driver conduct hearings and found them to have limited application.”

Previously stated goals to speed up the processing of applications had obviously been impacted, but, STC Turfitt writes: “We have seen more than four days shaved from the average time for goods vehicles and more than 20 days off the average times for PSVs.

“The great majority of applications are concerned with goods operations – so the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) is closer to the target that we set than the figures might otherwise suggest. Overall, it averages out at 37.5 days per application.”

Outside of the impact of Covid-19, the TCs had faced other challenges, STC Turfitt said, “including a freeze on permanent recruitment resulting in vacancies going unfilled or being filled by temporary and largely inexperienced staff.”

Looking to the future, the commissioners face another challenge with the UK’s exit from the single market.

STC Turfitt report that TCs had: “readied themselves to act as the appeals body following the removal of an operator’s community permits.”

But, he cautions: “Negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU are ongoing. It is difficult to predict how the transition will develop and whether all of those efforts will be required.”

Before the challenge of Covid, the TCs were determined to reduce the time taken for cases to come to public inquiry. The target is 12 weeks, but TC Turfitt admits that this may never be 100 per cent met as some cases are complex and require more preparation time.

The Traffic Commissioners for England, Sarah Bell, Tim Blackmore, Nick Denton, Gerallt Evans, Kevin Rooney and Richard Turfitt, followed last year’s practice and gave a joint submission.

They emphasise that they expect operators to take a risk-based approach to transport management, adjusted to suit the operators’ individual circumstances.

They write: “No set of rules can envisage the circumstances of each individual business in this country. The operator licence requirements offer a framework for compliance. It is for the individual operator and transport manager to work out how to best manage the risks which are particular to their own operations.”

Specific examples are given, including the employment of drivers claiming self-employed status. A case before the Upper Tribunal (appeal court) quoted the RHA guidance on the subject ‘Unless they are an owner-driver, it is very rare for a lorry driver to be legally “self-employed”’.

“The case provides ample warning against conscious decisions to enter into any questionable arrangements,” the TCs warn.

They report that an increased emphasis on the realities of brake performance at annual test, highlighted at the last round of FTA Transport Manager conferences, had led to DfT’s Commercial Vehicle Road Safety Forum commissioning DVSA to lead a further collaborative piece of work looking at the quality of brake performance testing both at annual test and during regular maintenance inspections.

“The review is broad-ranging and includes a look at the way in which the performance of tri-axle semi-trailer braking systems is undertaken at annual test and the potential of new technology,” they report.

They warn that DVSA is now using the National Automatic Number Plate Recognition Scheme to follow up on decisions by the TCs to revoke, suspend or curtail licences, by identifying vehicles licenced to banned operators should they venture on the road. The system also has applications in the enforcement for drivers’ hours rules.

Bridge strikes have become a matter of increasing focus for the TCs. They are now seen as an issue for operators, as well as drivers, who are expected to ensure that their vehicles are routed away from such hazards.

“This goes beyond simply placing responsibility on drivers,” they warn, adding that regulatory action can be taken against operators who fail to take appropriate action, although appreciating that height warning signs can be obscured or made inaccurate by road resurfacing.

“Operators should now ensure that drivers check the height of the vehicle and/or trailer, that the in-cab height indicator is an accurate indication of the ride height, that the driver is properly trained to plan the route and has the equipment to do so,” they warn.

Claire Gilmore, the TC for Scotland, submitted a separate report on her first full year in post.

She writes: “Drivers who appear before me at conduct hearings already know the value I place on professionalism in the industry. They know that I expect them to set the bar for other drivers and to maintain exemplary standards in relation to road safety.

“But now, more than ever, we have seen their professionalism and dedication come to the fore as they continue to deliver vital supplies, and transport those who keep us safe to work. What has already been achieved by our industry, in the most challenging of circumstances, is testament to dedication of the people in it… I formally extend my thanks to you all.”

Victoria Davies was only appointed as Traffic Commissioner for Wales in February of this year, following the retirement of Nick Jones. Early in her tenure she attended the opening of the new TC’s office in Caernarfon, which breaks new ground in having bilingual staff.

She writes that she hopes to continue building a strong relationship with the Welsh government: “and am also looking forward to engaging with Local Authorities, transport bodies and trade associations (the CPT, FTA and RHA) to promote safe, fair and reliable passenger and goods transport in Wales.”

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