Crackdown on cowboy operators, but is it effective enough?

Police forces, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), traffic commissioners and other UK government agencies are stepping up action against law-breaking truck operators and drivers as more evidence emerges of a growing number of illegal activities.

But calls for more action against suppliers of equipment such as exhaust emissions limits cheating devices and tachograph-disabling equipment are growing louder.

Highways England is the former Highways Agency which became a government-owned company three years ago. This month, the company announced plans to fund the operation of three unmarked trucks by police forces in England. The trucks will be fitted with wide-angle cameras and other equipment designed to allow them to capture evidence of unsafe driving on motorways and trunk roads.

One similarly-equipped truck has been in operation since April 2015 with 28 police forces. They report that the vehicle has been used in identifying more than 5,000 offences by about 4,000 drivers. Most of the drivers stopped had been using mobile phones illegally while driving.

One driver stopped by Devon and Cornwall Constabulary officers was found to have sent ten replies to ten text messages within just one hour. A driver in Surrey was recorded trying to put toothpaste on a toothbrush. Another in the East Midlands was steering with his knees while eating food and using a mobile phone.

Unmarked police trucks kitted out for patrol

The three trucks being funded by Highways England are two-axle, Mercedes-Benz Actros 1843LS tractive units, supplied by Dawsonrentals on a three-year lease, including repair and maintenance. Special equipment fitted to the trucks include blue flashing lights hidden behind the radiator grille, flashing red lights on the rear wall of the cab, and various cameras and other recording equipment. Their speed limiters are deactivated. Vehicle-specific driver training for all police forces using the trucks is being provided by Dawsonrentals driver training manager Dave Shakespeare.

“Highways England has been funding a single cab for the past couple of years and we’ve been impressed with the impact it’s had on improving safety,” says the agency’s head of road safety, Richard Leonard.

“Over 4,000 dangerous drivers have been pulled over, with police action ranging from verbal warnings to prosecutions. We’ve found that the vast majority of drivers are sensible behind the wheel but a few have got into bad habits, or are simply ignoring the law and putting themselves and others at risk.

“We’ve therefore decided to fund two extra unmarked HGV cabs to continue to target dangerous driving on England’s motorways and major A-roads, improving safety for everyone.”

The penalty for unlawful mobile phone use by drivers was doubled last year, from three points on the driving licence and a £100 fine to six points and a £200 fine.

Tougher penalties demanded for emissions-cheating operators

At least the same degree of penalty toughening is now being demanded for truck operators found to be using emissions-cheating devices. Sue Robinson is director of the truck and van division of the National Franchised Dealer Association (NFDA), part of the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI). She is alarmed at the results of roadside checks of trucks carried out last year by the DVSA.

Between August and the end of November last year, DVSA examiners stopped 3,735 trucks in an exercise focused on exhaust emissions and air quality. Nearly 8% of the trucks stopped (293) were found to be fitted with what DVSA describes as “emissions fraud devices”.

The most common of these is an “emulator” which blocks operation of the selective catalytic reduction (SCR) exhaust after-treatment system fitted to all Euro-VI trucks and many at Euro-V. There are numerous online suppliers of these emulators both in the UK and overseas.

“The practice could be a widespread problem,” says Robinson. “However, the introduction of roadside checks is not a sufficient measure to effectively end the use of SCR cheat devices when they are easily available to buy online.

“Additionally, there is a ten-day window to remove the device before a penalty, which seems very lenient. This is especially worrying as threats to refer operators to the traffic commissioners to consider their illegal activities, and possibly remove their operator’s licenses, are only effective against UK-registered operators.”

Of the 293 trucks found with emissions-cheating devices in the four-month DVSA exercise last year, 151 were registered in Britain (8.5% of the 1,784 checked); 60 were from Northern Ireland (20.4% of the 294 checked); and 82 were from outside the UK (4.9% of 1,657 checked).

“Traffic commissioners welcome the steps being taken by the enforcement agency to identify emissions cheats,” says senior traffic commissioner Richard Turfitt. “Use of these devices threatens to undercut responsible and compliant operators as well as damaging the environment and public health.

“We will look to take action wherever an operator seeks an unfair and illegal advantage over the rest of industry.”

Emissions systems still not widely understood

A Birmingham public inquiry last month suggests that lack of understanding of SCR system operation and its dependence on AdBlue is still surprisingly widespread among truck operators.

A Stoke-on-Trent haulage firm, Rapid Response Deliveries, had its operating licence revoked by West Midlands traffic commissioner Nick Denton after one of its vehicles was found with a device designed to cheat emissions tests. Denton describes as “astonishing” the ignorance of basic operational issues displayed by everyone at the firm.

There was not enough evidence to conclude that the company had itself fitted the device to the vehicle, Denton decided. But it had still been operated for three years without anyone realising that the vehicle required AdBlue.

The emulator device on the vehicle had the effect of turning off its SCR system and disabling the warning light on the dashboard which would have told the driver that the AdBlue system was not functioning.

As a result, maximum legal levels of emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) were being exceeded.

“The need for AdBlue should have been self-evident to anyone who understood the business of operating HGVs and who had kept up even a marginal acquaintance with the trade press over the last few years,” said Denton in a written public inquiry decision. “The ignorance of basic operational issues displayed by everyone at the company is astonishing.”

During the inquiry, he had also heard that the company’s drivers had committed numerous and repeated drivers’ hours offences. The firm’s nominated transport manager, Michael Mansfield, had failed to perform many of the required transport manager duties.

Mansfield did not have a contract of employment with the business and had received only “token and sporadic” payment. He had therefore not had the “genuine link” with the operator, as required by law. Mansfield was disqualified from acting as a transport manager for an indefinite period.

Rogue operators are damaging the environment and the industry

Operators flouting the law are not only damaging air quality but also harming the reputation of the entire haulage sector, points out the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

“We’re very clear that it’s completely unacceptable to falsify emissions readings,” says RHA chief executive Richard Burnett. “The industry is making great strides in helping reduce harmful toxins through adoption of greener vehicles and technologies, so we take a very dim view of the few who use emulators and other methods to cheat the system.

“Our message to the vast majority of hauliers who operate responsibly is that we fully support DVSA’s enforcement action and welcome further clampdowns on rogue operators.”

Nearly a year ago, the RHA echoed calls from ACEA (Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles), a big Brussels-based European association of vehicle manufacturers, for the European Commission and national governments to take action against both suppliers and users of devices which bypass emission control systems. The RHA says it is disappointed that such devices are still easily available online.

“We reiterate the message to the commission and governments that they need to address this issue urgently and make it difficult for would-be cheats to have the means to falsify readings,” says Burnett.

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

Latest articles