Transport Select Committee inquiry into the work of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA)

Response from Brake, the road safety charity, 4 January 2013

About Brake

Brake is an independent charity working across the UK to make roads safer, prevent road death and injury, and care for victims. Brake carries out research into road users' attitudes and behaviour in relation to road safety, engages schools and communities to spread road safety education, disseminates international research, guidance and case studies to fleet and road safety professionals through its Fleet Safety Forum and Road Safety Forum, and supports communities campaigning for road safety. It is also a national, government-funded provider of specialist support for people bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes, running a national helpline and providing packs that are handed to bereaved families by police following every road death.

Response

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) plays a vital role in improving safety and preventing crashes and casualties on our roads, by catching non-compliant drivers and operators and deterring others from breaking important safety laws. Brake acknowledges the progress VOSA has made in introducing new approaches and technology to target the worst offenders, but it is still the case that a very significant number of commercial vehicles and their drivers fail to meet legal requirements. VOSA's most recent baseline compliance survey resulted in prohibitions for 10.6% UK HGVs and 21.8% of foreign HGVs . Furthermore, in 2011 commercial vehicles were involved in 12% of all fatal crashes despite making up 6% of traffic miles .

Crashes and casualties caused by commercial vehicles cause acute and long-lasting trauma and suffering to the families involved, which Brake witnesses through its support services for people bereaved and serious injured in road crashes. It is vital the government recognises that despite progress, there is still a huge amount of work remaining to prevent crashes involving commercial vehicles, and the devastation they cause, and continues to invest in this vital aspect of traffic enforcement.

Increasing levels of compliance

Brake argues that further work must be done to increase baseline levels of compliance, to protect all road users from crashes and casualties caused by commercial vehicles. Brake recommends the following key steps to achieving this through increased checks, penalties and education. It recommends VOSA sets targets to increase compliance levels in baseline roadside checks over time to mark progress towards achieving safer roads through its work.

1. Increased checks

Brake agrees that targeting higher-risk fleets is an efficient way to ensure prosecution of the worst offenders, and commends VOSA for its record on intelligent and targeted checks, and higher than baseline prohibition rates. However, Brake believes that alongside targeting higher-risk commercial vehicle operators, VOSA must also maintain a visible presence and high levels of random checks to act as a strong deterrent against law-breaking and make clear to all commercial vehicle operators and drivers that safety must be a top priority across the sector.

Brake would also urge further increases to levels of checks, both random and targeted, through investment in more front-line staff. Brake is concerned by reduced staffing at VOSA. Since 2003/4 VOSA's staffing has reduced by 18%, equivalent to 477 staff members . Brake believes it is vital that VOSA is properly staffed, in order to make progress in increasing levels of compliance, as well as catching the worst offending operators.

2. Penalties

Brake supported the introduction of graduated fixed penalties as it gives VOSA greater powers to immobilise drivers in situations which would cause risk to the public. However, Brake strongly recommends a significant increase in the minimum and maximum fines available within the fixed penalty system, with the minimum raised to at least around £-1,000, in line with research that higher fines act as a greater deterrent to law-breaking behaviour , and in line with the devastation that can result from breaking these laws. Brake believes that the current level of fine of £30-200 is woefully inadequate in encouraging respect for these vital safety laws, especially given that you can face fines of £1,000 for offences that pose no immediate threat to human life, such as littering.

3. Education

Brake recommends increasing publicity around VOSA's enforcement activities, following the example of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which annually conducts publicity around the start and end of drink and drug drive enforcement campaigns, aimed at warning the public they are cracking down on risky, law-breaking driving. Brake takes the view that creating a sense of heightened enforcement will encourage compliance, as evidence shows that when drivers believe they are likely to be caught they are less likely to commit driving offences . This could be targeted media work at specialist publications with a commercial vehicle operator and driver demographic, and billboard advertising around ports and arterial routes and at service stations.

Brake also recommends that VOSA and the Department for Transport should do far more to engage commercial vehicle operators proactively with guidance on policies and procedures, promoting not only compliance but best practice. It would be beneficial for VOSA to provide additional guidance to companies/drivers who commit a minor infringement or are given a warning, to help them tighten their procedures and help prevent recidivism. Brake's well-established and respected Fleet Safety Forum, which shares international research and best practice with more than 1,000 fleet operators each year through guidance documents, case studies and seminars, has worked with VOSA and the Department for Transport in the past to raise awareness among commercial vehicle operators. This included producing guidance on vehicle overloading with funding from VOSA, which was distributed via VOSA enforcement staff to drivers and operators. Brake's Fleet Safety Forum has also been funded by the DfT in the past to produce guidance on other risk management topics for fleet operators, which it disseminated to thousands of operators. Both activities were highly cost effective ways to provide information and guidance across the industry. However, the Fleet Safety Forum has not received any government support for several years, and Brake is unsure if there is any government investment at present in this vital field of advising and guiding fleet operators on safety management practices and policies.

Foreign HGVs

Foreign HGVs continue to have much higher rates of non-compliance than UK operators , which is of great concern. Although actions have been taken to address this issue, through, for example, working with ports authorities to check drivers on arrival into the UK, there is much more that could be done.

Brake is supportive of the HGV Road User Levy Bill as it may help towards monitoring and enforcement of foreign HGVs. But Brake would support more government lobbying at EU level to harmonise standards (at the highest possible level) in commercial vehicle safety regulation and therefore encourage greater levels of compliance in foreign vehicles in the UK.

Brake is supportive of graduated fixed penalty scheme introduced in 2009, giving VOSA the power to issue on the spot fines to foreign non-compliant drivers. However, Brake would also point out that alongside this it is important to increase levels of fines (as set out above) so they are high enough to act as a deterrent to non-compliant foreign drivers, and to ensure that appropriate numbers of checks are being conducted so foreign drivers do not believe they can get away with breaking UK laws. This critical need to catch non-compliant and potentially dangerous foreign drivers is another key reason for maintaining and increasing levels of random roadside enforcement checks.

On a related point, Brake was also disappointed at the UK government's decision in 2011 to delay opt-in to a European directive on cross-border enforcement, which aims to allow better sharing of enforcement information and equal treatment of foreign and resident drivers in relation to traffic offences such as speeding, drink driving and using a mobile phone at the wheel.

Investment

Brake is deeply concerned about underinvestment in VOSA. VOSA is a vital service working to keep roads safe from dangerous commercial vehicles, which are involved in a huge proportion of devastating crashes and casualties every year. Only with appropriate funding can it achieve greater levels of enforcement and preventative work to reduce non-compliance, and further improvements in enforcement technology. VOSA's income has decreased for the past three years, suffering from lack of government investment as well as a freeze on the statutory testing fee since 2009. Underfunding risks VOSA struggling to maintain European leadership on enforcement practices for commercial vehicles, but more importantly, it risks lives on UK roads.

End notes

[1] Corporate Reports - 2010-2011 VOSA Effectiveness Report, VOSA, 2012
[2] Reported road casualties Great Britain annual reports 2011, Department for Transport, 2012
[3] Traffic by road class and region (miles) TRA01, Department for Transport, 2012
[4] Annual Report 2003/4, VOSA, 2004
[5] See for example, Calviño, N. “Public Enforcement in the EU: Deterrent Effect and Proportionality of Fines” European Competition Law Annual 2006:Enforcement of Prohibition of Cartels, 2006
[6] World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, (World Health Organization, 2004)
[7] Corporate Reports - 2010-2011 VOSA Effectiveness Report, VOSA, 2012