CM looks back at the case which spanned almost two years and raised questions about O-licence regulation, vehicle safety and who is to be held accountable when the very worst happens.
On 9 February 2015 the brakes on a tipper truck failed on a Bath street and, with the driver unable to stop the vehicle, it ran out of control and killed four people.
The Bath tipper incident has been causing ripples in the industry ever since that day. Some good, some bad, and many asking how such a tragedy could be prevented form ever happening again.
While there was some focus on 19-year-old driver Philip Potter’s age, press coverage of the incident quickly came onside with the young driver. Just two days after it had happened, one newspaper reported that the brakes had failed on the truck and that Potter had sounded his horn to try and warn people out of the way.
On 17 February2015, Potter was arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving and manslaughter by gross negligence.
Much of the focus of the investigation into what happened in February fell to the vehicle itself and the company operating it: Grittenham Haulage of Whites Farm, Wiltshire.
The business’s MD Matthew Gordon was also arrested on 17 February on suspicion of causing manslaughter by gross negligence.
The company lost its O-licence in December 2015, and traffic commissioner Sarah Bell said the firm had demonstrated “wholesale non-compliance”.
As part of the police investigation, police worked extensively with Scania and the DSVA to take apart the tipper and test each of its components.
Detective constable Wayne Sumsion, who was present for this, told CM: “Over five days, the vehicle was taken apart piece by piece and then reconstructed. It was discovered that two of the brakes didn’t work at all, one had very little in it and the rest were maladjusted. It was a picture of an accident waiting to happen.”
It wasn’t until May 2016 that mechanic Peter Wood was charged with two counts of manslaughter, and the trio of men went on to face a four-week trial in Bristol Crown Court, beginning November 2016.
A lot of the Bath Tipper trial focused, as the investigation had, on who was ultimately responsible for the tipper in such bad condition that its brakes failed.
Potter was eventually found not guilty on all counts, and the jury heard how he had in fact flagged up a red brake light on the tipper’s dashboard to his employer on a date prior to the collision.
But Gordon and Wood were each found guilty of four counts of manslaughter, and Alyson Harris of the Crown Prosecution Service in the South West said: “This terrible tragedy could have been avoided had the defendants performed their jobs competently.
“The company did not comply with the traffic commissioner’s conditions. The vehicle was not properly maintained and it was driven on a road it should not have been on and at a time when it was not roadworthy.”
In a sentencing on 27 January, almost two years after four people were killed by Grittenham Haulage’s run down tipper, Matthew Gordon and Peter Wood were sentenced collectively to 12 years and nine months in prison.
The Nicholls connection
The name Simon Nicholla cropped up repeatedly during the Bath tipper trial in November and December last year.
Nicholls had not been arrested or charged in connection to the case, but various witness accounts suggested he was connected to the business. Matthew Gordon told the jury he had taken advice from Gordon while running the business and acting, unqualified, as a transport manager.
Nicholls was also fined for two offences in TC Sarah Bell’s written decision against Grittenham Haulage in December 2015, and had been nominated as a transport manager for the business before this was refused by Office of the Traffic Commissioner.
However in November 2016 Simon Nicholls was granted an O-licence for a transport business called Simon Nicholls based at Whites Farm, the former lodgings of the disgraced Grittenham Haulage. The application process lasted 18 months and included two PIs.
Prior to this O-licence for three vehicles, Nicholls had been at the helm of two transport businesses – Flatlight and SJN Commercials. The former had employed Grittenham Haulage boss Matthew Gordon.
While running Flatlight Nicholls was called to a PI where his reputation was found to be severely tarnished. The business was liquidated in 2011.
Nicholls’ repute was found to be in tact when he was granted his new O-licence in 2016, however the OTC’s trust in him was short-lived, and he was called to appear at a PI in May 2017.
TC Kevin Rooney stripped Nicholls of his O-licence at the PI on 16 May, saying that the man had shown a “woeful lack of knowledge”.
Nicholls was found to have been operating a vehicle not on his O-licence for a number of months, many journeys of which he attempted to paint as journeys for vehicle maintenance.
Rooney told Nicholls "Some of the things I've seen today have been quite scary... you have displayed a woeful lack of knowledge. You appear incapable of getting on and getting things done."
As well as having his O-licence revoked, Nicholls was banned from acting as a director and had his repute as a transport manager removed.
CM held a round table of industry experts earlier this year to discuss the repercussions of the Bath tipper case and the lessons the industry should take away from it.
One issue raised was that a serially non-compliant business had been able to fly under the radar to the point that neglect of its vehicles claimed four people’s lives.
MD of CM publisher DVV Media UK Andy Salter suggested local companies such as Grittenham were able to go undetected because they operated away from the strategic road network, so out of reach of DVSA roadside checks.
He asked: “How do we get these off-grid operators into the enforcement pool? If they’re not caught in an enforcement operation or doing something obviously wrong, how do they show themselves?”
Some believed that burden should lie with the DVSA, while others believed that schemes such as Fors and Clocs would weed out rogue operators.
However Chris Cooling, transport manager at Day Aggregates, said the most frustrating part of his job was the constantly changing standards, and FTA chief executive David Wells pointed out that the industry already had a comprehensive compliance scheme: the O-licence system.
TC Kevin Rooney added that industry had the power to protest new O-licences.
“There is an opportunity for certain people to make objections to a licence that has been granted. These include trade associations, trade unions and local authorities. In five years, I’ve not had any. It should be used more,” he said.
The round table concluded that many things could have prevented the tragedy of 9 February 2015, from the industry and the business itself. But the participants were particularly clear on two things.
First, that there were definitely questions the road transport sector should be asking itself after the Bath tipper crash. From the DVSA’s method of catching non-compliant operators to the process of hiring a new transport manager, the road transport sector has plenty to think about.
Second, Grittenham Haulage is a haulage horror story – pretty much as bad as it gets. But the business was an anomaly. A small fish in a large sea of safe, compliant operators, in an industry that strives continually to better itself, and will hopefully never see the likes of the Bath tipper tragedy again.