Vosa has vowed to improve van operating standards but is keen to favour the carrot of education over the stick of endorsement. James Dallas reports
The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency is determined to drive up light commercial vehicle operating standards without resorting to the sort of legislation that regulates the HGV sector.
Vosa plans to step up the number of roadside inspections of LCVs it carries out as well as promoting van safety through presenting more media and educational events.
It has also launched a new publication: Your Van: best practice guide, designed to help operators to comply with the rules and regulations and to keep their vehicles on the road. There is definitely room for improvement – according to Vosa figures, of the 10,800 LCVs it stopped last year in targeted roadside checks, 93% were overloaded and 63% were found to have serious mechanical defects. In addition, the failure rate for vans at MoT is a staggering 50%.
Despite his job title, Gordon MacDonald, head of enforcement policy for Vosa, insists the initiative is more about raising awareness and educating van operators to raise standards than in clamping down on offenders. Vosa claims falling foul of the rules can cost businesses up to £4000 a day in penalties and lost revenues.
MacDonald says: “It’s well known by people in the motor trade that there is a high first time MoT failure rate. Many of the owners are running small to medium-size businesses and it must cause inconvenience, especially loss of income, when their vehicles are off the road.”
He says the level of roadside checking, which has remained constant for several years, could increase by about 10% but stresses: “We have embarked upon a compliance initiative, we want to get the information out there and to get more data about LGVs (light goods vehicles).”
MacDonald says many van drivers and operators do not belong to associations such as the Freight Transport Association, so very little is known about them. Aside from the firms that run both HGVs and LCVs and the members of the FTA’s Van Excellence scheme, MacDonald estimates that there is no information about 35% of the 3.2 million plus vans used for business across the UK.
Vosa carries out roadside inspections in conjunction with the police. It says the inspections are targeted and MacDonald claims: “We rarely stop vans we think will be compliant.”
Without having much intelligence about LCVs, unlike with HGVs, MacDonald admits most spot checks take place if a van looks as though it is breaching regulations. For example, if a van is overloaded its suspension will be abnormally weighed down.
“It’s a visual thing,” says MacDonald, “how does the van sit on the road?”
Owner/drivers and SMEs are of most concern to Vosa as they are less likely than major fleets to be aware of safety regulations. Particularly operators for whom “the van is just a tool of the business, it does not represent the business,” says MacDonald.
With more than six out of 10 LCVs going about their business with a mechanical fault he acknowledges that such a widespread lack of road worthiness represents a considerable problem.
Keeping records of drivers’ hours is not mandatory for LCV operators and MacDonald admits: “It is difficult to ascertain how big the problem is,” (of drivers not taking breaks).
Vosa recommends van drivers take a 30 minute break for every four and a half hours they spend on the road in line with GB domestic drivers’ hours rules, which forbid drivers of passenger carrying vehicles to stay on the road for more than five and a half hours at a time.
MacDonald says Vosa has no means of gathering tangible evidence of how many van drivers break speed limits and similarly, with no special licence required to drive vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of less than 3.5-tonnes, it can not gauge how many drivers may require training to safely operate heavy vans as opposed to the passenger cars in which they passed their driving tests. However, he points out that the FTA’s Van Excellence scheme is focusing on driver behaviour in a bid to improve standards.
But with the lack of legislation covering LCVs Vosa knows there is less incentive for operators to impose strict safety regimes and MacDonald acknowledges that standards are higher for those that run HGVs as well as vans, because they adopt the same, more thorough procedures across the whole fleet.
However, he does not believe similar legislation will be imposed on light commercials as exists for trucks, largely due to the expense it would entail.
“There’s no appetite for it, the Government wants fewer rules,” he says, “we must try to encourage self-regulation.”
Vosa stresses that compliance is not just a matter of staying on the right side of the law for operators, it can also boost profit margins by keeping vans on the road and in improving the business’s reputation.
Therefore the incentive for LCV operators in belonging to a voluntary scheme, such as Van Excellence, is that it becomes a sign of quality and good practice – like a kitemark.
“Operators should see the benefits of it,” says MacDonald.
The MoT failure rate for vans shows that maintenance is the last thing on the minds of most operators, he admits, but says managers should make drivers carry out a two minute walk around inspection of their vehicle every day before taking to the road – such a procedure is mandatory for HGV operators.
Paradoxically, MacDonald sees vans as occupying a neglected middle ground between heavy trucks and passenger cars in terms of the attention their owners bestow them.
“LGV users do not have pride in their vehicle, it’s a utility,” he says.
But returning to the mantra of education being the key to driving up standards, MacDonald argues that ignorance is the enemy.
“It is easy to fall foul of legislation if you have no knowledge of it,” he says.
Keeping on the straight and narrow
Having identified any defects Vosa advises operators rectify them and keep a record of all repairs to demonstrate an effective maintenance regime before sending vans back into service. Aside from the basics of making sure all vehicles are taxed, insured and MoTed, it stresses that LCV fleets should be serviced according to the manufacturer’s minimum standards at the very least. If subjected to demanding work, safety critical components such as brakes should be checked frequently.
In order to demonstrate professionalism and maximize their fleet’s resale value, operators should keep their vans clean and tidy. They should also make sure they are using the right vans for the job – especially when it comes to load capacity. The official gross vehicle weight, which includes the combined weight of driver, passengers, load and fuel, should never be exceeded. Breaching the limit can result in fines of £5000 and up to two years in prison, Vosa warns.
To cut down costs and stay legal, Vosa advises fitting a 70mph speed limiter for motorway use – vans use 25% less fuel at 70mph than 80mph.
Vosa says fleet managers should always ask for references from previous employers for their drivers and regularly check licences, keeping copies on file.
Driver training should be provided for new recruits to ensure they can safely handle larger vans and employers should introduce regular eyesight tests for staff. Drivers should make a written statement declaring their entitlement to drive and be prepared to be tested for the adverse affects of alcohol or drugs to show they are fit to drive.
If Vosa finds a van to be in breach of regulations it can issue fixed penalties to the driver for both endorsable and non-endorsable offences, it can prohibit vans of all sizes from further use when it discovers mechanical defects, overloading and drivers’ hours offences. Vosa can issue on the spot fines to non-UK resident offenders and can immobilise vehicles in cases where drivers refuse to pay penalties or when vehicles have been prohibited from continuing a journey.
Vosa can issue fines ranging from £100 to £5000 but stresses that operators can avoid enforcement action and the associated penalties by adopting the advice given in its best practice guide. For small businesses in particular complying to all the regulations may seem costly and time consuming but the consequences of running poorly maintained or operated vans are likely to be far more damaging.
At a glance
Vosa roadside checks 10,800 LCVs annually
63% have mechanical defects
93% are overloaded
£5000 is the max fine for exceeding an LCV’s GVW
The MoT failure rate for is vans 50%