Wednesday 22 September 2021

TCs warn driver shortage is no excuse for safety failings

In their 2020/21 annual report, the traffic commissioners (TCs) have warned operators not to let standards slip because replacement drivers are currently difficult to recruit, while reminding those offering traction services that they have responsibility for the condition of third-party trailers once coupled to their trucks.

Submitting a joint report, Sarah Bell, Tim Blackmore, Nick Denton, Gerallt Evans, Kevin Rooney and Richard Turfitt, the traffic commissioners for England, acknowledged that the shortage of drivers continued to be a challenge for operators.

“Trade representatives and other industry leaders have raised awareness of the impact… on the supply chain,” said the commissioners.

“The obvious risk is that operators may be tempted to retain drivers even after retraining and disciplinary processes have failed to import the standards expected of a professional driver.”

While the industry needed new drivers, the TCs stressed that they should be: “mentored by competent and experienced drivers who can act as exemplars.”

The TCs warned: “The current driver demographic presents a real risk and operators and transport managers may be tempted to engage drivers who fail to live up to even the basic standards.

“It must be understood that whatever the commercial expediency, safety standards must be retained and that the ability to manage an operator’s licence will be put in jeopardy, if they fail to ensure compliance from their drivers.”

Circumstances last year meant that operators had been encouraged to develop the skills needed to manage risk in their own businesses.

“Operators who find deficiencies in their operations need to draw on good practice and change their control procedures, before they attract regulatory action,” the report advised.

It emphasised the importance of driver defect reporting “as a daily exercise”.

“A competent driver will ensure that defects are detected before the vehicle and trailer go into service, but driver defect reporting is more than just a tick box in the morning,” said the TCs.

“Extra walk around checks might be necessary if a vehicle has been driven over difficult terrain or it is an older vehicle, for instance. If a risk becomes evident during operation, a driver should be trained to record his/her findings and to report the defect.”

TCs urged employers to make sure they understood the tax status of anyone who drove for them. They said: “The differences between self-employed drivers, what constitutes a self-employed driver, drivers engaged as a personal service company and drivers provided by agencies need to be fully understood, especially where they relate to HMRC and financial standing.

“There has been much guidance provided by the trade associations and the government and we would strongly suggest operators access these resources and seek appropriate advice where required.”

The TCs also warned that “a concerning pattern has emerged where the maintenance of trailers has been at issue.”

They wrote: “The considerable effort by DVSA and other stakeholders to make roller brake test reports accessible to all, has sadly passed by a number of operators who seem oblivious to the support available from the Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness. It makes the ongoing work commissioned by DfT all the more important. In the meantime, we would urge all trailer operators to implement the guidance.”

Fast-growing e-commerce du-ring lockdown had increased the number of traction-only operators hauling trailers for third parties. Responsibility for trailer condition was shared by the trailer owner and the traction provider.

“Even though for short-term use, the trailer owner is normally responsible for routine maintenance, including safety inspections, traffic commissioners stress that the operator must comply with the obligations of their operator’s licence, which extend to the trailer, whilst it is being used by them,” the report warned.

It suggested that trailer owners and truck operators should “work together to ensure the roadworthiness of the trailer.

“The operator should take a risk-based approach to ensure the trailer’s maintenance arrangements comply with their own schedule of maintenance and inspections, including regular brake-testing,” the TCs said.

Commenting on the report, Ian Edmundson, marketing manager UK & Ireland for TIP Trailer Services, said: “Since trailers are now sophisticated technical assets that are an essential part of most heavy goods vehicle fleets, it is more important than ever that regular and good quality maintenance is performed on them.

“Trailers are not what they were just 10-15 years ago, now having hi-tech electronic braking systems, second decks and tail lifts utilising hydraulics and electronic controls, complex refrigeration units, a multitude of sensors and much more, all of which require regular maintenance in order to ensure continued operation.

“Gone are the days where a routine check of the basic functionality of a trailer will suffice; today’s trailer specifications demand much more rigorous inspections and preventative maintenance procedures be performed.”

He continued: “It is essential that technicians performing maintenance on aspects of a trailer’s feature set are correctly informed on how to do so. This often means attending training courses and achieving appropriate qualifications in order to ensure technicians are appropriately skilled. Maintenance providers should follow guidance provided, whether it be from manufacturers or from other sources such as the DVSA publication Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness when carrying out trailer maintenance in order to maximise the lifetime of an asset, keep maintenance and repair costs under some control, to help operators stay compliant and, of course, ensure safety on our roads.”

The TCs’ report also warns that operators of vans and light commercials of between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes GVW that they need to be ready to appoint transport managers and apply for operators’ licences if they wish to operate on international work in the future. This is the result of EU regulations which are expected to come into force next year.

In his foreword, senior traffic commissioner Richard Turfitt said he and his colleagues were looking forward to working with the newly-appointed DVSA chief executive Loveday Ryder. Significantly, her predecessor Gareth Llewellyn had argued that the traffic commissioners were unnecessary as he left his job.

In the wake of this, TC Turfitt pointed out that the traffic commissioners had kept the transport industry running safely through the Covid crisis: “Whilst it is now 90 years since the first meeting of traffic commissioners, the last year has illustrated that traffic commissioners adapt to the needs of an ever-changing world. Instead of turning inwards we took the initiative in support of vital industries.”

The senior traffic commissioner said that despite the TCs’ reliance on DVSA for staffing and support, “the commissioners should not be viewed as an instrument of the DVSA.”

He said: “We share an interest in road safety, but our statutory functions are different. The respective public bodies also differ considerably in size and resources. The relationship requires mutual respect.

“We highlight that delivery of the service relies on it being appropriately resourced and staffed, so that it can function effectively.

“This requires a flexible and responsive approach from those supporting us. Traffic commissioners also rely heavily on the evidence provided by the DVSA. It is in all interests to work together to improve the standard of investigations, but ultimately, we need respect and understanding for the legal parameters.”

Claire Gilmore, the TC for Scotland, submitted her own report covering her second year in office.

With the largest geographic area to cover, she said the Covid crisis had encouraged the development of remote hearings.

“We will continue to use technology to our advantage in delivering effective, value-for-money services. As restrictions have eased, we have adapted our procedures for in-person hearings so that we can safely maintain a physical presence across Scotland. That blended approach continues to ensure equality of access for all.”

As Scotland’s devolved government developed more transport policy, her office would face an increased workload. She intended to seek additional funding for this directly from the Scottish government.

Meanwhile Victoria Davies, the TC for Wales, said her first year in office had been an “exceptional” one for the transport industry in Wales.

With the courtrooms normally used for pubic inquiries in South Wales either closed or being used to clear a backlog of criminal cases, a temporary facility had been found in the Municipal Buildings in Pontypridd prior to the opening of a new office for her in the town funded by the Welsh government.

Small and medium-sized operators in Wales had been particularly hard-hit by difficulties in training new drivers, and the driver shortage had spread from trucks to buses.

She concluded: “As we look to the future and how best to ‘build back better’, I am most looking forward to getting out and meeting operators, drivers and DVSA examiners who have been working at the coal face throughout this pandemic. I have huge admiration for the dedication of those working in the transport industry in these unprecedented times.”

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