Every transport manager is aware of the unfortunate reality that drivers cannot always be fully compliant, despite their best efforts. And West of England traffic commissioner (TC) Kevin Rooney is keen to hammer home the message that scrutiny of drivers’ hours compliance, regular downloads of tachograph vehicle unit data and close monitoring of drivers’ defect reporting, are all key in ensuring that an operator avoids being called into the public inquiry (PI) room.
When CM caught up with Rooney following his presentation at the FTA’s Transport Manager conference in Southampton last month, the TCs and the DVSA had just issued a warning to operators about the importance of brake maintenance, saying that one in five vehicles are discovered with a defect of some kind.
One element of vehicle maintenance Rooney and his colleagues are keen to highlight is the importance of driver defect reporting and the need to rectify reported issues immediately.
“If [drivers] can’t get this stuff down and get it reported, then are they fit enough to drive an artic?” he asks. “In my view, that’s as much as a false record as a false tachograph. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it. It really is a big issue.”
He says some operators simply do not have a procedure in place for defect reporting at all, while others choose to ignore completed defect sheets or fail to conduct spot checks on drivers, rendering them useless.
“Some operators just put far too much trust in the driver and do not actually think that the driver might have other pressures [stopping them from doing things properly],” he adds.
Brake maintenance is also heavily workshop-dependent, and it is important to make sure a technician, whether internal or external, is doing things right. As a starting point, roller brake testing should be carried out four times a year, with the vehicle fully laden.
Rooney, who has recently moved to the West of England traffic area from the North East, tells CM that the issues he encounters on a day-to-day basis have remained largely the same, despite the West being a geographically large and diverse region.
He says: “It’s quite surprising that in the North East I had Bulgarian flagged-out operators that used to be UK operators, and one of the first things I dealt with down here was a Bulgarian operator running on a flagged-out licence that had its vehicle impounded.
“What is striking is that the West of England starts in Slough. You don’t think of Slough as the West of England. There are a lot of operators around the airport, as you’re within striking distance of Heathrow, but other than that there are a lot of skip and tipper operators there.”
He says a lot of his time in the North East was taken up by numerous West Yorkshire-based bed manufacturers – an industry that the West lacks.
“The bed manufacturers were constantly at public inquiry,” he explains. “They’d just buy a truck, put an extra large body on it, fill it until it’s full and drive until the driver fell asleep. It’s shocking.”
Based in Bristol, Rooney says he feels for Cornish operators who are called to a public inquiry. “It is a very big geographical area. From Bristol to Camborne, it’s the best part of 200 miles.”
Last year Rooney and his predecessor Sarah Bell, who has since moved to the London and the South East traffic area, conducted 73 PIs and 65 preliminary hearings. Of the companies that went to a PI, roughly one-third had their O-licences revoked, a third had their licence suspended, and a third got a formal warning.
False self-employment is a big issue in the region, according to the TC. He gives the example of Bristol-based Adam Pawelczyk, who had his O-licence revoked in October after his drivers had committed numerous tachograph falsifications.
“His drivers were notionally self-employed, paid a day rate, and then expected to earn it,” says Rooney. “A number of companies pay £150 a day, which is quite good money for a regular truck driver, so of course they’re expected to get the job done.”
Last year saw the introduction of the Vehicle and Operator Licensing Service (VOLS), which allows operators to specify new vehicles on their O-licence, inform the TCs of any changes of directors or transport managers, and make new or variation applications online.
Phasing out paper
Rooney told delegates at the FTA Transport Manager conference that the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) plans to phase out paper O-licence applications. It is currently hitting its target of turning a new O-licence application around in seven weeks, while paper applications take roughly nine weeks.
He told delegates: “Take-up is 45%, and our target for the first year was 40%, so we’re happy with that. But I would urge you to make sure your application is correct to save our case workers in Leeds from chasing up mundane things, like changing your directors or vehicles on licences. That will then mean they can give you a better service.”
The OTC will soon shift its focus to catching up with suspected phoenix operations. It plans to revoke O-licences that businesses may be using illegally after not handing them back to the OTC after the entity they were issued to has gone into administration or liquidation.
VOLS is now linked to Companies House, and OTC caseworkers will be able to monitor operators that exhibit some of the tell-tale signs of financial difficulty, such as changes in registered address or trading status.
He says: “In some cases, that licence will still be out there, and there is a fair chance that they’re still going to be operating those vehicles.
“We get in touch with those companies very quickly to get hold of the licences or see what’s going on. It’s not fair that you’re out there competing fairly and they’re carrying on regardless.”
Restricted O-licence holders are also frequently appearing at PI, Rooney tells CM, and increasing numbers of them are being asked to employ a transport manager, or somebody in a similar role, despite there not being a legal requirement for them to do so.
“The traffic commissioners are trying to put a lot of emphasis on what we’re calling the responsible person. You might not need a qualified person, but you’ll need somebody in the business that does the transport manager role and has all of their responsibilities,” he advises restricted licence holders.
The TC says he has sometimes revoked an own-account firm’s restricted O-licence and granted it a standard national one; not because it’s moving third-party product, but because it will need to employ a transport manager who is accountable to the TC.
“Restricted licence operators are far less compliant than standard national O-licence holders. Both because they haven’t got a transport manager that’s qualified, and because running trucks is not their business,” he adds.
Rooney became a TC in 2012, covering the North East traffic area for four years before being relocated to the West last year. He says it can be tough removing a driver or haulier’s livelihood, but rewarding when the most dangerous businesses are taken off the road.
“I enjoy meeting the mix of people,” he says of being a TC. “I quite like it when an operator has been to PI and taken on some good advice. It’s rewarding when you see people put things right.”
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