Enforcing the safety of commercial vehicles in the UK


Please note: This lengthy fact sheet was prepared in late 2005. It contains much data that is valuable, but for more up to date figures, please go to www.dft.gov.uk/vosa

In the UK, commercial vehicles (trucks, buses and coaches, or CVs) account for less than 1 in 50 (1.7%) of vehicles but are involved in nearly 1 in 5 (18%) road deaths. This is partly because you are less likely to survive a crash if you are hit by a CV, but also because some tragedies involving CVs are caused by non-compliance with basic laws by their operators, including lack of maintenance and tired driving, for example. It is essential that commercial vehicles are maintained, driven, and managed to high standards and that unscrupulous and illegal operation of CVs is driven off our roads.

How extensive are CV illegalities?

Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) compliance checks, carried out randomly at the roadside to give an unbiased picture of compliance within the UK fleet, show that in 2003/4 more than one in ten trucks (11.5%), one in six trailers (16.3%) and one in fourteen buses and coaches (7.0%) had mechanical defects. More than one in five trucks (22.4%) had ‘paperwork’ offences that can be life-threatening, most of which were breaches of drivers’ hour rules and tachograph offences.[3]

CASE STUDY: In 1996, a ten-tonne truck carrying a 20-tonne load of gravel ran out of control down a steep hill in Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire. It crashed into a van, then smashed into a shop and wall. The 63 year-old truck driver and 42 year-old van driver were both killed, as were four pedestrians, including a two-year-old girl. The truck was found to have faulty brakes. The prosecution told the court that the brakes on all four of the vehicle’s axles were defective. It said the brake drums and shoes on the front axle of the lorry were excessively worn on both sides. One brake lining was worn down to the rivets and a cam was also defective. The only successful charge against the company was a failure to maintain the brakes, resulting in a fine of £5,000. However, the bereaved families fought successfully in court to overturn the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to bring a charge of manslaughter against the company. However, when the company was eventually charged with manslaughter, the evidence the CPS was able to find at that stage, so long after the crash, was not sufficient to convict.

CASE STUDY: A truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, killing an off-duty policeman on a bicycle, was sentenced to four years in prison after admitting causing death by dangerous driving. The director of the employment agency that had provided the driver was sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter. Brian Alcock, director of Future Driving Services, admitted encouraging drivers to work beyond the 48-hour limit, but denied forcing them to do so. The driver, Sean Emery, was found to have driven for 41 out of the previous 57 hours when he ran over Detective John Needham, who was riding in a cycling event. Emery and Alcock had conspired to conceal drivers’ shift patterns. 17 more of Alcock’s drivers were prosecuted for hours offences. (Commercial Motor, 17 November 2005)

Enforcement and regulatory bodies

In the UK, commercial vehicle enforcement is carried out by the police and VOSA. Responsibility for licensing and regulating commercial vehicles lies with regional Traffic Commissioners who issue licenses and can take them away for misdemeanours.

VOSA is one of four executive agencies of the Department for Transport. Its overall purpose is “contributing to the improvement of road safety, environmental standards and the reduction of vehicle crime.”[4] VOSA’s main areas of work to improve and enforce the safety of commercial vehicles including:

  • Licensing and regulation - providing administrative support to Traffic Commissioners in considering and processing licences to operate commercial vehicles (O licences) and registering bus services. This support is carried out by Traffic Area Offices (TAOs) within VOSA.
  • Education and training - providing seminars and training courses to operators on compliance; offering information and advice to drivers and operators at the roadside, at operators’ premises and on a one-to-one basis; producing educational literature.
  • Testing and inspection - providing statutory annual testing and voluntary testing for trucks, buses and coaches and specialist inspections such as certifying buses before they enter public service.
  • Enforcement and compliance checks - carrying out targeted enforcement checks at the roadside and on operators’ premises and carrying out random ‘compliance’ checks to gauge overall compliance. VOSA’s enforcement work is carried out by Vehicle Examiners (VEs) and Traffic Examiners (TEs) working in 23 enforcement ‘areas’. The former check for mechanical defects such as faulty brakes and the latter check for ‘paperwork’ offences, such as breaches of drivers’ hours rules, overloading, or lack of appropriate licensing documents.
  • Crash investigation and technical research (through the Vehicle Safety Branch) - supporting police investigations into crashes involving commercial vehicles by: examining crashed vehicles; investigating possible manufacturing design defects with vehicles or components; monitoring safety recalls; and providing information from investigations into crashes and defects to manufacturers, the police and the Department for Transport.

For the purposes of vehicle licensing, Britain is divided into seven area networks, each of which has a licensing authority or Traffic Commissioner (TCs) who issues, amends and revokes operating licences (O licences) for commercial vehicles. TCs are statutorily independent in their licensing functions but report to government. Their work is supported by the Traffic Area Network (TAN), part of VOSA. TCs act on information about illegalities uncovered by police and VOSA examiners. When necessary they hold Public Inquiries (PIs) to consider disciplinary action against operators who have not followed the conditions of their licence. TCs can suspend or revoke a licence or reduce the number of vehicles that can be operated on it. They can also suspend or revoke a driver’s vocational licence. They can also disqualify drivers and operators from applying for new licences within a period of time. In 2003/4, 1,173 PIs were held involving truck operators, at which there were 247 licence revocations, 165 licence suspensions and 368 restrictions imposed. In the same period, there were 251 PIs involving bus and coach operators, at which there were 53 licence revocations, 19 licence suspensions and 78 restrictions imposed.[5] Reasons for revocation include: failing to adequately maintain vehicles; failing to satisfy the financial requirements of holding an O Licence; convictions; and ‘breaches of undertakings’.

Measures of the safety of the UK fleet

All CVs must be tested annually as a condition of holding an operator’s licence. In 2003/4, 40.8% of trucks, 26.7% of truck trailers and 27.0% of buses and coaches failed their annual test first time around.[6] The failure rate for buses and coaches has gradually declined over the past decade from 33.6% in 1993/4. However, it has increased for trucks, from 34.6% in 1993/4, and for truck trailers, from 21.4% in 1993/4. [7] Nearly a quarter (24.7%) of trucks and more than one in thirteen (7.7%) buses that failed their test the first time around in 2003/4 did so due to a problem with their brakes (these figures combine failures due to performance of all types of brake and brake components).[8] This is particularly worrying given the fact that these vehicles are prepared for annual test by their operators and therefore these figures should be artificially low, rather than giving an accurate picture of the state of the UK fleet on the roads.

Throughout the year VOSA also carries out roadside spot checks on vehicle maintenance and paperwork. Usually, a Vehicle Examiner and Traffic Examiner work together to check roadworthiness and paperwork at the same time. Vehicles operating illegally are issued with either a delayed prohibition or immediate prohibition. The former allows the driver to drive on, but requires that the illegality is rectified and checked at a VOSA test centre. The latter means the vehicle is deemed too dangerous to continue its journey and cannot move until the problem has been rectified. In 2003/4, VOSA examiners carried out roadside spot checks on 93,121 trucks, 28,202 truck trailers and 20,007 buses and coaches. The prohibition rate overall was 21.2% for trucks, 25.4% for truck trailers and 15.2% for buses and coaches, relatively similar figures to in 2002/3.[9] Prohibition rates have increased steadily over the past decade, which may be entirely or partly due to VOSA increasingly better targeting its enforcement activities against the most likely offenders. Because roadside spot checks are targeted at high-risk vehicles, these figures should be artificially high and not accurately reflect the state of the UK fleet. However, the very high levels of prohibitions are still a very real cause for concern.

As well as carrying out roadside enforcement checks, VOSA also carries out checks throughout the year at operators’ premises. These are also targeted at high-risk operators, but because operators are usually given advanced warning of these checks, prohibition rates are lower than in roadside checks. In 2003/4, VOSA examiners carried out ‘fleet checks’ on 22,912 trucks, 5,634 truck trailers and 5,193 buses and coaches. 7.9% of trucks, 7.3% of trailers and 14.1% of buses and coaches were issued prohibitions at fleet checks.[10]*

Because prohibition rates from targeted checks should be artificially high and failure rates from annual tests should be artificially low, VOSA carries out random tests each year to try to give an accurate picture of compliance within the UK fleet. These checks take place on operators’ premises unannounced. Of the 4,030 trucks checked for mechanical defects in compliance checks in 2003/4, 7.2% were issued delayed prohibitions and 4.3% were issued immediate prohibitions. Of the 1,584 truck trailers checked during the same period, 9.4% were issued delayed prohibitions and 6.9% were issued immediate prohibitions.[11] The most common reason for prohibitions was faulty braking systems and components, accounting for nearly three in ten (28%) prohibition defects for trucks and nearly half (47%) of prohibition defects for trailers.[12] This suggests that nearly one in twenty trucks and more than one in fifteen trailers on our roads are so dangerous that they would not be allowed to travel at all, if stopped by enforcement officers, until their defect is fixed. 22.4% of trucks stopped had ‘paperwork offences’, of which 2.8% were reported for prosecution, 7.1% were given an advisory letter and 12.5% received a verbal warning. The most common offences were breaches of drivers’ hours rules, which accounted for 37.1% of offences, and tachograph offences, which accounted for 33.7% of offences. [13]

Of the 1,517 buses and coaches checked for mechanical defects in 2003/4 compliance checks, 4.1% were issued with delayed prohibitions and 2.9% were given immediate prohibitions. Faulty braking systems and components were the most common reason for prohibitions being issued, accounting for more than one in four (25.8%) prohibition defects. It should be noted that it is difficult to carry out compliance checks on buses as they cannot be randomly stopped while in a public service route. Therefore there are no compliance checks for bus and coach paperwork offences and compliance checks for roadworthiness on buses and coaches may give an inaccurate picture of compliance.[14]

Overall, compliance with mechanical requirements improved over the period 1997/8 to 2003/4:

  • The prohibition rate for trucks for mechanical defects decreased from 16.6% to 11.5%.
  • The prohibition rate for mechanical defects for trailers increased slightly from 15.1% to 16.3%.
  • The prohibition rate for mechanical defects for buses and coaches decreased from 10.3% to 7.0%.[15]

Enforcement powers

Power to stop: Prior to 2003/4, VOSA examiners were reliant on police support to carry out roadside checks as only police officers had the power to stop vehicles. This often meant that checks were restricted to certain times and sometimes had to be cancelled. In 2003/4, VOSA piloted a scheme that meant that, following training and accreditation from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), VOSA officers had the power to stop vehicles themselves. The scheme was successfully piloted in six police force areas in 2003/4 and assessed by VOSA, the police and the DfT, concluding that the scheme should be rolled out across the country. To date (November 2005) VOSA officers in all but two police force areas in England and Wales have been accredited with the power to stop. VOSA is currently in negotiations to enable officers in Scotland to also become accredited. New legislation is needed to enable to scheme to be rolled out in Scotland. VOSA hopes that this process will begin in late 2006. This means VOSA officers in Scotland will not be accredited until 2007 at the earliest. So far 40 specially-marked vehicles for stopping have gone into operation in England and Wales.

Power to impound: VOSA has had the power to ‘impound’ (confiscate) vehicles operated without an O licence since January 2002. In 2003/4, 141 vehicles were impounded. Of those, 85 were disposed of, three were returned to their owners after they obtained an O licence, 21 were returned to finance companies and 32 were returned to their owners following an appeal.[16] Impounding is usually used against illegal, unlicensed operators about whom VOSA has enforcement intelligence. For example, a currently unlicensed operator whose licence has previously been revoked or suspended, or who has been prosecuted.

Power to issue fixed penalty notices: VOSA does not currently have the power to issue fixed penalty notices for offences. The Road Safety Bill going through Parliament (Jan 06) includes enabling powers which will mean that VOSA officers can issue graduated fixed penalties for commercial vehicle offences. It will also allow VOSA officers to take deposits to prevent foreign drivers from escaping punishment. Fixed penalty notices will be notifiable to TCs, so this can be taken into consideration when granting, revoking, suspending or curtailing an O licence.

Power to issue delayed prohibitions to foreign vehicles: In 2003/4, VOSA was given powers to issue delayed prohibitions to foreign vehicles, when previously it could only issue immediate prohibitions. This led to a large increase in the prohibition rate in checks on foreign vehicles from 16.1% to 28.6%.[17]

Numbers of enforcement officers

VOSA’s annual turnover in 2003/4 was £135.6m, up from £114.7m in 2002/3. This increase was partly due to project funding from the Department for Transport and central Government budgets.[18] In 1999, a sub-group of the Road Haulage Forum (RHF) was set up, comprising representatives from the DfT, VOSA, Traffic Commissioners, ACPO, trade unions, Road Haulage Association, Freight Transport Association and Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Service. In 2001/2, the RHF agreed additional funding of £2.9million for VOSA, with a further £1.5 million in 2002/3 and 2003/4. This funding was mainly allocated for recruitment and training of front line staff, improving communications and intelligence and purchasing new equipment. How this funding has been used is examined in the sections below.

At the end of 2003/4, VOSA employed 2,608 employees, of which: 299 were vehicle examiners (VE); and 202 were traffic examiners (TE).[19] In 1993/4 there were: 247 VEs; and 166 TEs. Total front line enforcement staff therefore increased by 21% over those ten years. However, during the same period, the number of enforcement checks fell dramatically. Roadworthiness checks (roadside and fleet) on trucks fell by 36.1% from 145,807 in 1993/4 to 93,121 in 2003/4. Roadworthiness checks on buses and coaches fell by 23.7% from 33,023 to 25,200.[20] It is worth noting that in 2001/2, VOSA introduced ‘sift checks’ at the roadside, which are not included in these statistics. Sift checks involve a brief initial check of the vehicle. If this suggests the vehicle is well-maintained, it is released without further delay. This is aimed at helping VOSA examiners to target non-compliant operators and reducing inconvenience caused to compliant operators. However, sift checks only look at roadworthiness and provide no indication of possible paperwork offences. In 2003/4, there were 10,347 sift checks.[21] However, even if sift checks are added to actual roadworthiness checks in 2003/4, there are still significantly fewer than 10 years ago. Given that there are 434,000 trucks and 100,000 buses and coaches licensed in Britain, this equates to about one vehicle checked per year for every five vehicles licensed, meaning that 80% of the fleet goes unchecked for vehicle offences.

Paperwork checks decreased slightly in 2003/4 compared with two years previously (data on checks further back than this is unavailable). In 2003/4 there were 107,609 roadside ‘paperwork’ inspections by TEs, including 48,229 vehicles weighed.[22] In 2001/2 there were 108,917 inspections, including 48,452 vehicles weighed.[23]The prohibition rate for hours, tachograph and records offences increased by nearly half during this time from 3.5% to 6.4%. The prohibition rate for overloading increased marginally from 7.6% to 7.8%.[24]

VOSA’s 2003/4 Effectiveness Report argues that an increasingly targeted approach to enforcement increases vehicle inspection times and therefore can be expected to lead to fewer vehicles being checked and better ability to spot offences. However, in order for enforcement levels to be raised, it is surely necessary to target checks better, and have better quality checks, while the number of checks at least remains the same, otherwise there is a danger of simply maintaining the status quo. It is also important to retain a visible presence to act as a deterrent to non-compliant operators. The fact remains that most of the fleet goes unchecked each year, so unscrupulous operators know there is a chance they will get away with non-compliance.

Between 2005 and 2008, 109 more enforcement officers are expected to be recruited, the majority of which will be TEs. VOSA will also be recruiting more staff to collect and process intelligence data and staff to administer fixed penalty notices (see section above on enforcement powers).[25] VOSA’s total workforce was 2,608 in 2003/4, up from 1,768 in 1993/4 (Vehicle Inspectorate staff only).[26]

Training of enforcement officers

VOSA has a three-year apprenticeship scheme to provide training and industry experience to new VEs. Since this was introduced, 40 VEs have qualified. However, this scheme was suspended in 2004 and is being reviewed to check it is a cost-effective way of delivering skilled, knowledgeable staff. The results of this review are due in early 2006. VEs currently receive standard training on recruitment and any remedial training required, which is identified in regular appraisals. There is no standard training system in place to ensure that VEs are regularly updated with new developments in vehicle technology.

VOSA works with 44 (out of the 51) police forces to support their crash investigations. The other six police forces do not use VOSA because they have their own dedicated crash investigation units. In 2001, VOSA introduced a modular 20-day training course lasting four weeks to enable VEs to be trained to an advanced level in investigating crashes involving commercial vehicles, including vehicle dynamics, electronic devices, gathering and preserving evidence, modern vehicle technology and technical report writing. To date, 72 VEs have been trained. These specially-trained VEs carry out crash investigation work as well as other enforcement activities. Requests from police for support from VOSA in crash investigations have dramatically increased over the past decade as police resources for traffic policing have become stretched (traffic policing is not a ‘key priority’ as defined by the Home Office). ACPO’s Road Death Investigation Manual, introduced in 2001, recommends that VOSA’s expertise is used in the investigation of fatal and serious crashes involving commercial vehicles. In 2003/4, VOSA carried out 2,868 crash investigations, compared to 1,612 in 1993/4. This is likely to continue to increase, to an estimated 3,500 investigations per year within the next few years. Altogether, crash investigation now accounts for 7.1% VE deployment within VOSA. [27] Given this important, but time-consuming activity, there is inevitably a knock-on need for more VOSA officers to carry out routine enforcement checks at the roadside and at premises.

Equipment needs

Handheld computers
VOSA plans to equip all roadside enforcement officers with hand-held computer devices that enable remote access to a central database. This allows VOSA officers to access records on a vehicle’s operator and check for previous convictions or outstanding prohibitions in any location.?The devices are being issued to all VOSA enforcement officers in March 2006. From summer 2006, they will allow enforcement staff to access an operator’s ‘Operator Risk Compliance Score’ (see section below on intelligence). The computers will also enable officers to tap in offences to work out the fixed penalty, once VOSA has the powers to issue fixed penalty fines (see section above on powers).

Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)
One of the key ways that VOSA is increasingly targeting enforcement checks is through use of ANPR systems (Automatic Number Plate Recognition). ANPR uses cameras to check number plates of either moving or stationary vehicles with databases of unlicensed and untaxed vehicles and vehicles with ‘uncleared’ prohibitions. If there is a match, an alarm sounds and the system records a picture of the vehicle, its number plate and location. The vehicle can be stopped and directed to a check site or a visit to the operator can be arranged. ANPR can also be used to identify operators whose drivers use certain routes at certain times. This can be used to target educational as well as enforcement work. For example, VOSA proposes to use ANPR to identify operators whose vehicles are often on the road in the early hours of the morning to target educational resources on preventing fatigue. In 2003, VOSA brought eight stopping vehicles fitted with ANPR into service (one per traffic area). A review carried out found that of the vehicles that were checked following identification using ANPR, a huge 45% were found to have offences or defects.[28] VOSA is currently seeking Home Office type approval of its ANPR systems to allow ANPR records to be used as prosecution evidence. To date, VOSA has 10 vehicles with ANPR. However, the police and the Highways Agency are in the process of networking thousands of fixed ANPR cameras. When this process is complete (expected summer 2006), VOSA will be able to access data from this network. However, the huge increase in data available to VOSA through such technology would require adequate staffing levels to process it.

Mobile Roller Brake Testers (MRBTs)
Since 2002, VOSA has brought into operation six Mobile Roller Brake Testers (MRBTs). They are used at enforcement spot checks and allow detection of faulty brakes that may have passed a visual inspection. MRBTs provide more accurate results than a visual test and reduce the risk of vehicles passing brake checks simply because their wheels lock. VOSA also plans to introduce fixed Roller Brake Testers at roadside spot check sites.

Weigh in motion sensors Weigh-in-motion sensors (WIMS) are installed under the road surface to detect vehicle weight. It means that vehicles’ weight can be checked while they are moving, rather than having to pull each vehicle over to check its weight on a weigh bridge. WIMS are currently mainly used at ports where vehicles are slow-moving and can be checked with minimal disruption to the drivers. However, using ANPR, which can record number plates of vehicles found to be overweight by WIMS, VOSA ran a trial of WIMS linked to ANPR to detect and identify overloaded vehicles on motorways. The trial, on a motorway in the West Midlands, lasted six months and found that of 271 vehicles identified by the technology, all were later confirmed as overweight when weighed on a weighbridge. 204 were overweight to the extent they were issued with prohibitions. In late 2005, VOSA identified four more sites to install the technology.[29] Although the technology can operate all day every day, it requires staff to pull over detected vehicles and verify their weight at a weighbridge and issue a prohibition. VOSA was only able to staff the West Midlands trial site for six hours a week.

Portable weigh pads
Portable weigh pads have been in use for five years and there is one set in each of VOSA’s 23 enforcement areas. However, previously they could only be used on sites certified as flat to fine tolerances and so in practice they were rarely used. Following research VOSA revised its policies in late 2003 to allow weigh pads to be used at any site that appears flat and even. This means that VOSA examiners can, for example, arrive at a market traders’ car park and start weighing vehicles within minutes.

Crash investigation equipment Eleven specially equipped vans were put into use in 2003/4 to enable VOSA examiners to attend the scene of a crash safely and have specialist equipment available to enable them to gather evidence effectively, such as portable lighting and calibrated measuring devices. The vans are marked with high-visibility markings and additional equipment such as equipment to tow a mobile roller brake tester so the vehicles can be used for other purposes such as roadside checks. VOSA plans to introduce a further five specially equipped vehicles within the next year.

Testing stations Most of VOSA’s testing stations were built during the late 1960s and there is a need for continued investment to ensure that these stations are properly equipped to ensure a high standard of service. In 2003/4, VOSA began implementing its ‘estate strategy’ and investment programme by fully refurbishing its Kidderminster test station. The strategy includes refurbishing all test stations and replacing roller brake testers. VOSA is also currently reviewing the location of all testing stations and proposing to close a number, with the aim of having fewer, more accessible test stations providing a better service. Currently, many test stations’ locations mean that large amounts of commercial vehicle traffic have to pass through local communities. VOSA plans to close two test stations to begin with, directing customers to other nearby test stations. The success of this will be reviewed, possibly leading to further closures.

Intelligence and communication between agencies

In 2003/4, VOSA audited the quality and consistency of its data and developed a Data Improvement Plan to improve intelligence on operators and vehicles and aid effective targeting of enforcement. The plan set out three key recommendations: - develop an Operator Compliance Risk Score (OCRS), which uses historic data on operators and vehicles to assess and rate the risk they pose;
- establish a uniform approach to targeting non-compliant operators;
- provide new technology to allow examiners easy access to intelligence at the roadside, such as hand-held computers (see section above).

The roll-out of OCRS is due in 2006. To calculate a company’s OCRS, a model is used that takes into account issues including: type of business; fleet size; type and age of vehicles; annual test ‘scores’; whether company vehicle mechanics are licensed through voluntary licensing schemes; and type of drivers used (agency or employed). It also takes into account previous prohibitions, prosecutions and warnings. Companies are graded as high, medium or low risk in various categories. Officers at the roadside can look up a company’s OCRS on their hand-held computers, being issued March 2006. By March 2006, VOSA also plans to roll-out Regional Intelligence Units, with the aim of improving the quality and quantity of case work presented to Traffic Commissioners.

Currently, an operator must notify TAOs of its vehicles but not its drivers. This means that drivers are never linked to an operator’s licence and the activities of agency drivers in particular are almost untraceable. Requiring operators to notify TAOs of drivers would mean VOSA could target enforcement at operators employing high-risk drivers. It would also mean operators employing a new driver could be informed of their previous employing operator. This would be particularly beneficial in helping to prevent agency drivers breaking hours rules by working for more than one company, where a company may be unaware of the driver’s other job(s). This is an option VOSA is exploring.

In 2003/4, a bid for VOSA to have access to the police national computer was approved in principle. This will help VOSA enforcement officers to present more comprehensive case work when cases go to court.[30]

Euro-Controle-Route is a group of enforcement agencies in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, working together to improve European enforcement processes. In 2003/4 members of the group made an agreement to exchange intelligence on a monthly basis. The members are also working together to develop a method of exchanging information through an automatic electronic system.[31]

VOSA is involved in a number of multi-agency checks that are effective at uncovering traffic and vehicle offences at the same time as other criminal activities such as benefit fraud and use of rebated fuel. Multi-agency checks include:
* Checks at ports on the west coast, carried out with HM Customs & Excise, the Driver Vehicle Testing Agency from Northern Ireland and the Department of Public Enterprise from the Republic of Ireland. * ‘Operation Mermaid’ - intensive targeted spot checks carried out across the country with police forces, VOSA, HM Customs and Excise, the Immigration Service and Department for Work and Pensions.

VOSA runs a national hotline number - 0870 6060 440 - that anyone can call to report a suspected non-compliant operator. The hotline receives approximately 3,500 calls per year reporting suspected non-compliant operators. Although many calls reporting operators are followed up, at present, VOSA does not have systems in place to link hotline calls to outcomes to monitor how effective this is.

Prosecutions and convictions

The number of HGV traffic offences reported for prosecution has been falling since 1999/2000, from 20,385 to 16,988 in 2003/4. Previously to this they were gradually rising (up from 11,476 in 1994/5). The number of successful prosecutions for these offences has also fallen during the same period from 16,988 to 12,790. PSV traffic offences reported and convicted have also dramatically fallen. 1,633 were reported for prosecution for traffic offences in 1999/2000, falling to 1,164 in 2003/4. VOSA states in its 2003/4 Effectiveness Report that this is due to policy changes that mean examiners have other options other than reporting a case for prosecution. Since April 2001, examiners can issue an Offence Rectification Notice (ORN) for minor or first time offenders. If the operator then shows evidence that they have rectified the problem, they will not be prosecuted.

In February 2001, VOSA and the police were given powers to prohibit UK drivers for a range of drivers’ hours offences (previously they only had the power to prohibit foreign drivers). These measures have had the effect of freeing up court and examiner time. However, there is a danger that a decrease in numbers of prosecutions and convictions means there may be less of a deterrent effect, particularly from committing ‘minor’ offences.

In addition to falling numbers of convictions, average fines remain at such low levels that they are unlikely to have a significant impact on any operator prosecuted and provide inadequate punishment for offences that put lives at risk. In 2003/4 the average fine for HGV traffic offences was £186 in England and Wales and £175 in Scotland. The average fine in England and Wales is slightly lower than five years ago - it was £198 in 1998/9. The average fine in Scotland has increased significantly over the same period - up from £97 in 1998/9. Fines for PSV offences are slightly higher in England and Wales (£194 in 2003/4) but much lower in Scotland - just £78.

It is noted in VOSA’s 2003/4 Effectiveness Report that fines remain disappointingly low and that VOSA is working with the police to develop a system of graduated fixed penalties and deposits. The power for VOSA to hand out fixed penalties is included within the Road Safety Bill (see section above on enforcement powers).

Crash investigations

In July 2004, VOSA introduced standardised forms, which were approved by ACPO, to be used nationally by VOSA officers to report inspections of crashed vehicles (and which can be used as exhibits in court). The information collected by VOSA through crash investigations is being used to create a database managed by transport research body TRL. This will increasingly be used by researchers and policy makers.VOSA also supplies data to TRL and DfT for use in two studies that look at injuries sustained by vehicle occupants and vulnerable road users in crashes, and how the design of trucks can be improved to minimise injuries caused to other road users in crashes. Because of VOSA’s increasing role in crash investigation, VOSA is contributing to the revision of the Road Death Investigation Manual.


Over the past decade, technology has rapidly developed to enable more targeted, efficient enforcement based on intelligence on high-risk operators. However, new technology requires staffing to administer information and to carry out frontline enforcement. Brake is extremely concerned that numbers of front line enforcement staff have increased only minimally and numbers of enforcement checks have dramatically fallen. Brake is concerned that the advantage of technology and the contribution it can make to improve the safety of the UK fleet may be countered by a lack of staff to use it. Brake believes that increased Government investment in the enforcement of commercial vehicle safety is long overdue and essential to tackle illegalities among both foreign drivers and the ongoing ‘rogue element’ within the UK fleet industry that continue to use tired drivers who don’t comply with tachograph and driver hours rules, and run mechanically unfit vehicles.

Brake recommends that, following on from the work of the sub-group of the Road Haulage Forum, which released additional funding for VOSA, the Government set up an independent ‘commercial vehicle safety task force’ administered by the DfT to exclusively review and advise on the safety effectiveness of VOSA over a three year period. This task force should include a range of interested parties, particularly safety bodies such as Brake and RoSPA, and enforcement chiefs such as representatives from ACPO, and unions and associations representing enforcement officers. To assist this task force in its enquiries, VOSA will be required to provide information and evidence to the task force. The task force will also take advice from international agencies, such as enforcement bodies abroad. This task force should be provided with access to a fund of no less than £150,000 (£50,000 a year) to enable it to commission independent research on resourcing needs of VOSA by bodies such as TRL. The task force should be tasked with studying the following areas -
o The extent of compliance problems and their contribution to death and injury, particularly driver hours offences and poorly maintained vehicles; o Funding arrangements for VOSA and their adequacy; o Staffing needs at VOSA, particularly levels of frontline staff; o Technology needs, such as ANPR, hand-held computers and crash investigation vehicles; o Data collection and analysis systems including the forthcoming ‘Operator Compliance Risk Score’ ; o The possibility of performance targets for VOSA (eg. performance of UK fleet at annual test and in the annual roadside compliance check); o The possibility of operational targets for VOSA. Targets are needed for a higher number of roadside enforcement checks and fleet premises checks, and for levels of successful prosecutions and fixed penalties.

[1] Road Casualties Great Britain 2004 (Department for Transport, 2005)
[2] Road Casualties Great Britain 2004 (Department for Transport, 2005)
[3] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[4] Annual report and accounts 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[5] Traffic Commissioners’ Annual Report 2003/4 (Department for Transport, 2004)
[6] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[7] Annual Report 1993/4 (Vehicle Inspectorate, 1994)
[8] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[9] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[10] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[11] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[12] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[13] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[14] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[15] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004) and Effectiveness Report 1999/2000 (Vehicle Inspectorate, 2000)
[16] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[17] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[18] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[19] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[20] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004) and Effectiveness Report 1993/4 (Vehicle Inspectorate, 1994)
[21] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[22] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[23] Effectiveness Report 2001/2 (VOSA, 2002)
[24] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004) and Effectiveness Report 2001/2 (VOSA, 2002)
[25] Presentation by Stephen Tetlow at Prospect VI division conference (November 2005)
[26] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004) and Annual Report 1993/4 (Vehicle Inspectorate, 1994)
[27] Effectiveness Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[28] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[29] Moving On newsletter (VOSA, November 2005)
[30] Annual Report 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[31] Annual Report and Accounts 2003/4 (VOSA, 2004)
[32] Road Casualties Great Britain 2004 (Department for Transport, 2005)

Tags: road safety enforcement