Vehicle and Operator Services Agency: Enforcement of regulations on commercial vehicles - Public Accounts Committee Contents

1  Targeting high risk vehicles

1.  It is welcome news that the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (the Agency) increased the number of dangerous drivers and vehicles it removed from the roads from 28,900 in 2007-08 to 36,500 in 2008-09, but more could be done to target those vehicles, drivers and operators who present the greatest risk to road safety.[2]

2.  Since 2007, the Agency has used a risk rating system to help identify and target roadside inspections and operator visits at those British operators that are most likely to be non-compliant. The system sorts operators into 'Red', 'Amber' and 'Green' risk bands, with 'Red' indicating the riskiest operators. The bulk of roadside inspections, however, are of 'Green' or 'Amber' rated operators.[3] Currently, the risk scoring system is not precise enough to allow the Agency to identify with confidence all high risk operators. For example, the Agency had found that more than 25% of operators rated 'Green' had vehicles with a mechanical fault. With such high rates of non-compliance, the Department for Transport (the Department) did not consider that the Agency was wasting its resources examining those operators classified as low or medium risk.[4]

3.  The Department accepted that there was considerable scope to refine the risk scoring system and improve the proportion of 'Red' rated vehicles that were examined. For example, the system holds data on commercial vehicle operators but does not include information about their vehicles. Poor compliance is strongly correlated with older and lighter vehicles and the Agency could add this information, held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, into its risk scoring system to help it to identify which operators posed a high risk.[5]

4.  Foreign registered Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) pose a serious risk to road safety, representing around 3% per cent of lorries on the road but causing 10% of the accidents involving them.[6] The most severe accidents involving foreign vehicles are due to poor mechanical condition of the vehicle or driver fatigue caused by driving for too long without a break.[7] The Agency suggested that foreign HGVs might present higher risks to road safety than British operators because of the weaker enforcement regimes that exist in other countries.[8] It told us that Great Britain is recognised as being at the leading edge of commercial vehicle regulation.[9] In addition to roadside enforcement and enforcement of drivers' hours, the Agency implements an annual test regime and manages an operator licensing system which requires British operators to maintain vehicles in a roadworthy manner and have periodic maintenance checks. Not all other countries have the same regulatory requirements.[10]

5.  It is laudable that Great Britain leads the way in regulating commercial vehicles but we were concerned that foreign lorries use our roads and cause accidents here but do not pay any tax. We asked whether the Agency might be able to use its inspection regime to address the imbalance.[11] The Department said that the imbalance was not so clear cut once all the evidence relating to relative levels of fuel duty, employment taxes and company taxes was taken into account.[12] The Department had considered introducing a European scheme under which foreign operators would be required to pay a fee for each vehicle entering the country. The level of the fee would have been fixed by European law at a maximum of 11 Euros and the Department's cost benefit analysis had shown that such a scheme would offer poor value for money.[13]

6.  The Department launched a three-year High Risk Traffic Initiative in 2008-09 to target high risk vehicles on international journeys by placing teams of examiners on routes with large flows of such traffic, at a cost of £24.3 million.[14] This had increased significantly the Agency's targeting of international operators: the Department estimated that half of the vehicles stopped were now foreign compared to one-third of vehicles stopped in the past.[15] The Department was unable to tell us how it would address the problems posed by foreign vehicles once this initiative ended as this would depend on decisions to be taken as part of the next spending review.[16]

7.  The Agency holds comparatively little information about foreign commercial vehicles.[17] It was currently developing a risk-scoring system for foreign vehicles, similar to the one for British operators, although the information would be limited because the Agency only had records of foreign operators if their vehicles had been stopped at the roadside and examined.[18] Since May 2009, examiners had been able to issue graduated fixed penalties when infringements were found and immobilise vehicles to stop them being driven off before the faults were rectified or the fines paid.[19] These arrangements appeared to be helping since fewer foreign vehicles stopped by the Agency were found to be non-compliant than previously, particularly en-route to Ireland.[20]

8.  Access to information contained in HM Revenue and Customs' Freight Targeting Database could significantly improve the Agency's ability to identify non-compliant vehicles at their point of entry into Britain. The database contains information on vehicles' registration numbers, drivers and operators which the Agency could compare with its own data systems for matches with known high risk vehicles. Data protection legislation requires the Agency to have a proportionate reason why it requires access to the information held, and not all of the Freight Targeting Database is relevant to the Agency's work. Despite having been in negotiations with HM Revenue and Customs since Autumn 2008 the Agency had yet to resolve what data it needed and how to access it. The Department accepted that negotiations had taken far too long,[21] and told us that this has not been a top priority for senior management at the Agency as they had been focused on managing the introduction of a computerised MOT system and changes to HGV annual testing arrangements.[22]

9.  European Union Directives require commercial vehicle enforcement agencies to inform fellow Member States if vehicles or drivers were found to be non-compliant whilst travelling outside their country of origin.[23] The Agency fulfilled its obligations and passed details of offenders on to other Member States, although this information was not used consistently by their counterparts to tackle non-compliant operators.[24] However, the sharing of data was not reciprocated by all other Member States.[25]

10.  There was currently no mechanism in place that required Member States to share information about their own non-compliant operators who may be travelling outside their country of origin.[26] However, the European Union required Member States to establish by 2012 a national database of their licensed operators including information on serious convictions and penalties committed by them. Each national register would be accessible electronically to licensing authorities in all other Member States.[27]

11.  In total, British HGVs are involved in more accidents as, collectively, they travel around 25 times more vehicle kilometres on British roads than foreign commercial vehicles.[28] The most severe accidents involving British registered vehicles were associated with driver performance, principally tiredness.[29] Traffic offences, in particular fatigue and driving hours, were a more substantial problem than roadworthiness issues for both British and foreign drivers. The Department considered that this was an area that it needed to focus on.[30]

12.  Overall, there was little correlation between the level of risk posed by factors that contribute to road accidents and the Agency's assessment of risk in its risk scoring system, such that the Agency's resources could be channelled into factors that did not have a significant impact on road safety.[31] The Department accepted that in some areas, such as overloaded vehicles, the Agency was doing too much work relative to other risks and expected that, over time, the risk scoring system would be refined to reflect more closely factors that led to accidents. While the risk scoring system was a major step forward from what the Agency had previously used to target risky vehicles, it was still evolving. For example, the Agency now had a better understanding of the nature and severity of incidents which it was taking into account in developing further the risk scoring system.[32]

2   Q 1; C&AG's Report, para 1.5 Back

3   C&AG's Report, paras 1.13 and 1.17 Back

4   Q 111; C&AG's Report, Figure 5 Back

5   Qq 11 and 111 Back

6   Q 3 Back

7   Q 74; C&AG's Report, para 1.19 Back

8   Q 17 Back

9   Qq 17 and 18 Back

10   Qq 18 and 19 Back

11   Qq 95 and 147 Back

12   Q 147; Department for Transport Supplementary Notes, paras 10-14 Back

13   Qq 95-97 and 147-148 Back

14   Qq 3 and 96; C&AG's Report, para 1.3 Back

15   Qq 3, 67, 69 and 70; Department for Transport Supplementary Notes, para 15 Back

16   Qq 4-6 Back

17   C&AG's Report, para 1.14 Back

18   Qq 65 and 108 Back

19   Qq 51, 52 and 72-73 Back

20   Qq 73 and 76 Back

21   Qq 7, 9, 20-23 and 28 Back

22   Qq 24 and 28 Back

23   Q 40; C&AG's Report, para 2.6 Back

24   Q 62 Back

25   Qq 30-35 and 77-79; Department for Transport Supplementary Notes, paras 1 and 2 Back

26   Qq 40-45 and 88 Back

27   Q 36; Department for Transport Supplementary Notes, para 3 Back

28   Qq 10 and 67; C&AG's Report, para 1.19 Back

29   C&AG's Report, para 1.19 Back

30   Q 99 Back

31   Q 107; C&AG's Report, para 1.20, Figures 8 and 9 Back

32   Q 107 Back

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