Drivers' hours falsification: what is being done to stop it?
This year’s battle against tachograph cheats has been eventful, most obviously highlighted by a BBC Panorama special in September devoted to hundreds of foreign drivers evading drivers’ hours laws.
The programme was based on DVSA figures that indicated 440 trucks crossing into the UK last year were found with manipulated tachographs. This itself may be a worryingly large figure, but it is just a quarter of the annual number of drivers’ hours prohibitions in the UK, which the DVSA counts at 2,331.
Eastern European drivers are often cited as big offenders in the drivers’ hours compliance war, although one transport lawyer remarked with an equally politically incorrect characterisation, that “we mustn’t forget the Irish”.
Whichever nationality may or may not be the worst offender, the DVSA suspects it is often haulage bosses rather than drivers behind the evasion. This is because the more advanced devices are complicated to install and often found in fleets as opposed to individual vehicles.
The problem appears to be Europe-wide. The European Traffic Police Network has recorded increasing numbers of sophisticated manipulations, with both Dutch and Belgian police notable for reporting them. These include, for example, dummy pulse generators that can make it appear the tachograph is working properly when it is not. In some cases these have been found connected to a switch on the dashboard to turn them on or off.
Not just hours law
Even more worryingly, some of these devices can have the nasty side-effect of turning off electronic safety systems such as ABS.
So how well are the authorities managing to catch the cheats? And are the colourful stories and the DVSA figures just the tip of an iceberg?
In some ways, the use of magnets, pulse generators or other devices to deceive tachographs is only the higher-tech end of more widespread attempts by drivers to drive for longer hours.
Andrew Woolfall, a specialist transport solicitor with Backhouse Jones, says the most common tachograph offence is more old school, with drivers simply driving their vehicle without the tachograph inserted.
He says: “They don’t want to take their break so they eject the tacho and drive on. Then after 45 minutes they put it back in again.”
Straightforward enough – but easy for the authorities to detect. Modern tachographs record data internally, so anyone who matches up the tacho card and the vehicle tachograph unit’s internal information will see that a truck has been driven with the tacho card out. And as there is a legal obligation for operators to download this internal information every 90 days, it should be accessible to transport managers and the authorities.
But, as with all these things, it is not necessarily so simple. Woolfall points out that although the law requires hauliers to download the information, it does not require them to analyse it. And a lot of them, with little time available for work that doesn’t bring immediate profit, don’t bother. The result is that a driver who takes out their card can go undetected for a long time.
It does not seem likely, however, that drivers who are doing this could fool DVSA inspectors or police if they are stopped. In the battle of technology between the authorities and tachograph manufacturers on the one side and the evaders on the other, it is becoming increasingly hard for fraudsters to beat the system.
But they still try. And as Laura Newton, solicitor at Rothera Sharp, points out, a roadside stop is not necessarily enough to find those using more sophisticated evasion methods.
She says: “Most things can be found if you look deeply enough, but it depends on how in depth they analyse it. The DVSA realises this and now asks for a lot more than just the print-outs. Traffic examiners by the side of the road see a lot straightaway, but they back this up by getting other information.”
This can include vehicle tracking data, which is often used to get cheaper insurance deals, but can also reveal when tachographs have been tampered with.
The bottom line is that sufficient analysis can always catch the cheats, but it might not always take place. When it does, the courts and the traffic commissioners (TCs) are unlikely to be forgiving on deliberate tachograph manipulation.
In June, this became clear to St Helens HGV driver Christopher Champion, who was banned from professional driving for three years. Champion was stopped by Suffolk police last year, who found the truck’s tachograph was indicating it was at rest when it was being driven. Further investigation by the DVSA found Champion had created 13 false records.
When he appeared before TC Simon Evans, Champion said doing this was the only way he could keep his job, but this cut little ice with the TC.
Evans said: “You manipulated records in a dishonest fashion for your own convenience.”
In another case – also in June – TC Evans disqualified Sebastian Blizniak as the director of a haulage firm for two years, after he admitted buying a magnet for the express purpose of falsifying his driving hours. Blizniak was subsequently convicted of knowingly making a false record, taking insufficient rest and exceeding the 10-hour driving limit. In addition to his two-year director ban from the TC, the court added more than £1,000 in fines for these offences.
TC Kevin Rooney disqualified a driver for a career-ending 21 years in July. The punishment, for nine offences of knowingly making a false driving record, will keep Christopher Heydon without the right to drive until 2038, when he will be 70.
Rooney said: “The system of regulating drivers’ hours relies on a significant degree of trust and Mr Heydon’s actions struck at the heart of that trust.”
The 21-year ban is exceptional, but Backhouse Jones’ Woolfall says TCs are getting tougher on tachograph offences, particularly when planned rather than a result of incompetence. He says: “A driver found with no card in the tacho might be looking at a one-month ban, but if there is a device being used it is usually 12 months, so the TCs rightly make a clear distinction between mistakes and deliberate evasion of the regulations.”
If a business wants to keep on the road as a professional haulier the legal lesson is clear: make sure to obey tachograph regulations. And do not deliberately plan to get around them.