The Traffic Commissioner: the relationship between health and safety and transport

Richard Turfitt, the Senior Traffic Commissioner for Great Britain, has recently highlighted that few companies who come before him at public inquiries manage to link safety and transport, often treating them as separate distinct departments.

Speaking at the Health and Safety Lawyers Association Annual Association Conference in November, Mr Turfitt indicated that domestic freight accounts for 78% of goods moved by road in the UK and is an industry that employs 309,000 drivers. With a further 2.54 million people working in haulage and logistics, it is a big area for regulation and getting it wrong can be costly.

What is the Traffic Commissioner’s function?

Traffic commissioners regulate heavy goods vehicles, public service and local bus undertakings across eight districts within Great Britain.

One of the Traffic Commissioner’s functions is to approve applications for operators licences. There are three types of licence:

  • Standard national licence: required by a company transporting its own goods or other peoples goods within the UK
  • Standard international licence: for transporting goods within the UK and on international journeys
  • Restricted licence: limiting the licence holder to only transporting its own goods.

The applicant will need to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner that they are of good repute and financial standing to operate and maintain its fleet of vehicles to a roadworthy standard.

In addition traffic commissioners take action against drivers and operators at public inquiries.

What is the relationship between health and safety and transport

Government guidance outlines the ongoing obligations on operators to ensure that:

  • The vehicles they are putting on the road are taxed, insured and hold a valid MOT certificat
  • Vehicles being placed onto the road are “roadworthy” and that vehicle maintenance records and driver checks are retained for 15 months
  • Operators do not operate more vehicles than they are licensed to
  • Operators do not operate from unauthorised operating centre, and
  • There is an obligation on drivers obey drivers’ hours and tachograph rules and for operators to have safeguards in place to ensure their drivers adhere to these rules.

As with the implementation of health and safety systems, transport needs to be effectively managed by choosing the right contractors to maintain and service vehicles. Further, measure need to be in place to induct and train drivers on how to carry out drivers checks correctly, document and report any faults and ensure that they are following drivers hours and loading rules.

What are the Traffic Commissioner’s powers?

The Drivers and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA, formerly VOSA) carry out frequent roadside checks on vehicles. If a vehicle is found to be un-roadworthy because it has been overloaded/is not safe, or if a driver has broken drivers hours’ regulations then the DVSA can issue a prohibition notice and/or immobilise the vehicle.

Even if a fault has come to light because of a driver error, this will not prevent the DVSA inspector from looking more thoroughly into the company’s arrangements for transport and safety more generally. The DVSA Inspector will then produce a report of the Traffic Commissioner outlining the operator’s failing and the operator/company can be called to a public inquiry.

Additionally, the Traffic Commissioner can call a public inquiry if they become aware that conditions attaching to a licence are not being followed. For example, if an operator is carrying out activities it is not authorised to do or is operating more vehicles than it is permitted to.

If an organisation is called to a public inquiry, this can be a serious problem and often more serious than the operators appreciate until it is too late. Mr Turfitt commented on how few operators bring legal representation to public inquires.

In advance of the public inquiry the Traffic Commissioner will check the operators compliance history with the DVSA, but also with other regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency. Having registered improvement/prohibition notices or other convictions for regulatory offences can cause an operator difficulty in being able to demonstrate at a public inquiry that it is an organisation of good repute, especially if there is reference to health and safety failings.

At the public inquiry the Traffic Commissioner will scrutinise the practices and procedures of the operator and if not persuaded otherwise, they can (and will):

  • Issue a formal warning (usually only if the breach was minor)
  • Suspend the licence
  • Curtail the licence (reduce the number of permitted vehicles)
  • Revoke the licence entirely, and
  • Disqualify a person/organisation from holding a licence and/or from being a director of a company.

The suspension, curtailment or revocation can be invoked with immediate effect and can cause serious problems for a business. It is therefore wise to take legal advice before attending a public inquiry.

Read more items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - December 2019