Traffic commissioners are responsible for licensing and regulating operators of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), public service vehicles (PSVs) and local bus services. They can also take action against their drivers.

They can call a formal public inquiry in a court to get more evidence to help them decide if they should:

  • grant or refuse licences for HGV or PSV operators
  • take action against a vehicle operator, bus service operator or driver of a bus, minibus or lorry

This might be if someone has objected to a licence being granted or the traffic commissioner thinks an operator may have broken the terms of their licence.

A vehicle or bus service operator can also request a public inquiry but the traffic commissioner doesn’t have to hold one.

 

Objecting to a licence

Licence applications are made public. Objections can be made by certain public bodies and in some cases individuals.

 

Objections by public bodies

Bodies that can object to a licence application include:

  • local and planning authorities
  • the police
  • some trade associations and trade unions

 

When a public body can object

A public body can object to a licence about the:

  • professional competence of the operator or its transport manager
  • operator’s finances
  • operator’s reputation or fitness to hold a licence
  • operator’s arrangements for vehicle maintenance and drivers’ hours
  • operating centre’s environmental standards and general conditions
Objections must be put in writing to the traffic commissioner within 21 days of a licence application being made public.

You can see the latest applications and traffic commissioner decisions in the regularly updated ‘Applications and Decisions’ guides for goods vehicles and the ‘Notices and Proceedings’ guides for public service vehicles (PSVs).

Read the guide on goods vehicle operator licensing for further information.

 

Objections by individuals (representations)

If a vehicle operator wants to add an operating centre to a licence or make changes to an existing centre, owners and residents of land nearby can object. This is called a ‘representation’.

However, representations must be about environmental issues, such as concern over noise, and only if they’re going to affect the owner or resident’s ‘use or enjoyment’ of the land.

 

Why have I been called to a Public Inquiry?

There may be many reasons for a public inquiry (financial, maintenance, objections by neighbours, the Road Haulage Association etc). It needs to be appreciated that Disciplinary Public Inquiries are invariably called where there has been a serious or continuing breakdown in maintenance systems or the Operator is under investigation for serious or continuing breaches of safety related regulations – defective vehicles, speeding, drivers’ hours etc.

You may have to attend a public inquiry if:

  • someone has objected to your application for a licence or change to a licence
  • you have not kept to the conditions of your licence, for example you’ve used more vehicles than permitted
  • there are environmental concerns about a goods vehicle operating centre on your licence
  • your conduct has come into question, for example you’ve been caught using a mobile phone while driving

You’ll get a letter with all the details.

 

Notice to attend

You’ll get a minimum of:

  • 28 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a transport manager
  • 21 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a new or existing goods operator licence
  • 14 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a new or existing passenger operator’s licence

You cannot ask for the hearing to be changed to another date, unless you have a good reason that can be backed up. For example, if you’re going on holiday, you may need to send evidence to show it was pre-booked.

 

Should I be worried?

You may suppose that the matters contained in the call up letter are ‘trivial’ or ‘insignificant’. Think again! The Traffic Commissioner obviously doesn’t share that view and now for a dose of reality! If you are unable to convince the Traffic Commissioner that the failings were inadvertent and the deficiencies have been or will be corrected the consequences could be dire:

  • Revocation of the Operator’s Licence (no licence = inability to operate any vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.)
  • Suspension of the Operator’s Licence (suspension = inability to operate any vehicles on the Operator’s Licence for up to 6 months)
  • Curtailment of the Operator’s Licence (curtailment = a reduction in the number of vehicles able to be operated under the Operator’s Licence).

Put another way a fine of £1000 by the Magistrates for an overload, defective tyre or brakes is nothing in comparison to having the entire fleet suspended for 2 weeks or worse, the Operator’s Licence being revoked!

 

Broken Promises

Operators can become confused over what is required of them under the terms of their Operator’s Licence. The Operator’s Licence essentially involves a series of promises and undertakings to:

  1. Maintain the fleet in a safe condition
  2. Carry out and record the safety inspections at intervals specified by the operator in the original Operator’s Licence application
  3. Ensure drivers carry out daily safety inspections and such inspections are recorded
  4. Ensure vehicles are not overloaded
  5. Ensure drivers do not speed
  6. Ensure drivers comply with the domestic / European drivers’ hours rules and the fitment and use of recording equipment (e.g. the tachograph) comply with the regulations.
  7. Hold the requisite financial resources to carry out the above obligations (in particular maintenance)
  8. Hold the appropriate professional competence

 

Call up Letter

The call up letter will invariably require the operator to: –

  • Return the acknowledgment slip
  • Return a list of currently specified vehicles
  • Submit the last 3 months bank statements and latest audited accounts

The information requested needs to be submitted well before the hearing date.

  • Bring (at least) the last 3 months maintenance records to the Inquiry

 

Maintenance

The vast majority of call up letters involve maintenance issues.

Maintenance will either be done ‘in-house’ utilising fitters and mechanics in your employ (occasionally self-employed mechanics are used) or outsourced to an independent commercial vehicle garage. When you first applied for a licence you will have stipulated what the maintenance arrangements would be. If the maintenance is to be outsourced then there should be evidence of this in the form of a maintenance agreement. You are also under a duty to inform the Traffic Area Office of any changes to the maintenance arrangements and a copy of the maintenance agreement should be sent to the Traffic Area Office.

The Vehicle Examiner’s report (annexed to the call up letter) will usually comprise narrative covering a visit (announced or unannounced) to the operating centre and the inspection of all or some of the vehicles specified on the Operator’s Licence. If Prohibitions have been issued to vehicles specified on the licence, the list of Prohibitions (going back 5 years) will be detailed in the report and the Vehicle Examiners will comment on his or her findings and then at the conclusion list the matters that led the Vehicle Examiner to mark the maintenance arrangements as ‘unsatisfactory’. There will also be a form PG 13F, which is a copy of the inspection record completed following the site visit and handed over to the operator. This form will indicate whether or not there are any deficiencies in the maintenance and inspection systems operated by the client. This form is usually attached to the Vehicle Examiner’s report.

In our experience the usual reasons for receiving an unsatisfactory maintenance report are: –

  • Failure to adhere to the promised safety inspection intervals (i.e. 4 weekly or 6 weekly safety inspections). Usually this is where a vehicle will have missed an inspection and / or there are gaps in the inspection intervals.
  • Drivers are not adhering to a nil defect reporting system
  • Drivers are adhering to a nil defect reporting system but there is nothing to indicate that defects are being rectified or indeed to evidence when rectification is taking place.
  • Vehicles are routinely failing annual MOT’s (indicates to Vehicle Examiner sloppy maintenance procedures)
  • Vehicles are attracting prohibition notices (defects identified at roadside spot checks or unannounced or announced inspections at the operating centre (indicates to Vehicle Examiner that the maintenance systems are failing))

In order to deal with maintenance related matters, it is important to assemble as much information about the maintenance arrangements as possible. What amounts to adequate maintenance is that there are procedures in place to ensure that vehicles are maintained in a safe condition. In other words the vehicle has no leaks, its braking systems are fully functional, its tyres are undamaged and have requisite tread depth, the lights, horn, indicator lights, wipers and other safety related equipment are all working properly and that safety critical components are not worn or damaged. The object of the exercise is to carry out regular safety inspections to identify defects so that such defects can be rectified before the vehicle goes back on the road.

The carrying on of regular safety inspections is essential but it is also important have a procedure for forward planning the inspections as well as to keep records. The forward planner, inspection and other maintenance related records must be kept for a minimum of 15 months. In other words, the forward planner, all safety inspection sheets, driver defect reports and records detailing repairs and rectification work must be kept safe. Usually each motor vehicle and each trailer will have its own maintenance file and usually the forward planner will be on your transport manager’s office wall.

 

The Forward Planner

This should detail for each vehicle the dates of all future safety inspections for a minimum of 6 months – preferably 12 months. Annual MOTs, 2 yearly inspection and 6 yearly calibration checks for tachographs should also be included on the forward planner.

 

Safety inspection sheets

The safety inspection sheets are usually proformas and every box and entry should be completed. The mechanic who does the work should sign the inspection sheet and the mechanic or his supervisor should sign the certificate that the vehicle is fit for the road. The safety sheet should be dated and the kilometres entered in the appropriate box. If items requiring rectification have been noted, the initials of the mechanic carrying out the repair should be endorsed against the relevant item. The dates between successive safety inspection sheets must not exceed the notified intervals (i.e. 4 or 6 weekly or as the case may be). If gaps occur, then they need to be explained. For example, a vehicle might have been taken off road (VOR) for a couple of months because a part needed to be ordered from Korea etc.

 

Driver Nil Defect Reporting

This is an area that seems to cause terrible confusion amongst operators and the position is really quite simple and straightforward. One of the undertakings given to the Traffic Commissioner is that drivers will carry out daily inspections of their vehicles before setting off on a journey. These inspections form part of the maintenance arrangements and therefore must be recorded. The best way of dealing with this is for the drivers to be issued with a duplicate book. Each day the driver should inspect the vehicle, checking for loose wheel nuts, leaks, the lights, indicators and tyres etc. The driver should fill in an inspection sheet ticking off each item on the checklist and noting any defects. The top copy of the defect report sheet should be handed in to the transport manager irrespective of whether or not a defect exists. This is why the system is referred to as a ‘nil defect reporting system’.

The advantages of doing this should be obvious. If for example a vehicle is stopped at a road side check and several wheel nuts are found to be loose, the Vehicle Examiner will issue an immediate prohibition and may well ‘S’ mark the prohibition which denotes a significant maintenance failure (this is a red rag to a bull so far as Traffic Commissioner’s are concerned). If however, the driver has handed in a defect sheet indicating no defects and more importantly has put a tick in the box relating to wheel nuts security, the obvious inference will be that the wheel nuts loosened on the journey. This would not be indicative of a significant maintenance failure – enforcement action by the Traffic Commissioner is going to be unlikely for this reason alone (i.e. loose wheel nuts).

 

Prohibition Notices

Prohibitions or PG9s are issued by a Vehicle Examiner for a variety of reasons ranging from loose wheel nuts, defective tyres, steering, suspension and leaks to overloads or excessive emissions. The list is potentially endless.

Prohibitions are either ‘Immediate’ or ‘Delayed’. If the Vehicle Examiner considers that the defect is a result of a significant maintenance failure the Vehicle Examiner will mark the prohibition with an ‘S’. The inference will be that the safety inspections are inadequate or not being done correctly. The Vehicle Examiner may cross reference the prohibition with the previous safety inspection sheet to see if the defect was picked up previously and then not rectified. If that is the case, then the inference is doubly bad! It would be equally as bad if the Vehicle Examiner formed the view that the defect would have been manifest for a considerable period yet was not spotted at the last inspection! Worse is yet to come. What if the Vehicle Examiner has checked the driver defect reports and noted the drivers have reported the defect but nothing has been done to rectify the problem (until of course after the PG9 is issued). What if the defect was obvious yet the driver has failed to report it?! These are all issues that need to be dealt with – they simply cannot be ignored. The Traffic Commissioner is likely to spot them. It is usually better both for you if you have spotted them too, otherwise it is going to be difficult to deal with the matter spontaneously at the Public Inquiry!

The fact that a vehicle picks up an immediate prohibition is by no means fatal. A component may fail in a safety critical area (master cylinder/ air chamber) that is a non-serviceable component. Obviously the vehicle must be prohibited immediately but no blame will necessarily be attached. Delayed prohibitions are issued for non safety critical defects (slight leak) and the Vehicle Examiner will delay the prohibition for a period ranging from 3 to 10 days depending on the severity of the defect.

It is therefore important to know what sort of prohibition has been issued and also important to cross check the date of issue of the PG9 with the last safety inspection and the driver’s daily defect report. It should be noted that if a vehicle is submitted for a clearance test and either fails for the same defect or a new defect this will cast a shadow over the credibility of your maintenance systems for what should be fairly obvious reasons. It is just as important to investigate the circumstances leading to the failure on retest – when this happens the operator is issued with a PG9 (A), which denotes a variation to the original PG9 – always a bad sign – don’t ignore it deal with it!

 

At the public inquiry

You can decide to represent yourself or ask someone to represent you, such as a lawyer. This could be someone else like a transport consultant if the traffic commissioner agrees.

Evidence is not given under oath but witnesses have to tell the truth.

If you do not tell the truth you could lose your licence or criminal charges may follow.

 

What happens at the hearing

Report to the inquiry clerk as soon as you arrive. Public Inquiries are heard in relatively formal surroundings, either at the Traffic Area Office or in a local Magistrates Court, Council Office Building or local Hotel (if objections from neighbours are to be heard). The proceedings are tape-recorded. The traffic Commissioner or his/ her Deputy will preside. There is no other prosecuting advocate present.

The Traffic Commissioner is effectively an Inquisitor.

The traffic commissioner will then:

  • decide whether oppositions should be heard
  • listen to the application outline and ask questions about it
  • listen to objectors or a Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) traffic examiner outline their cases and ask questions
  • ask applicants and objectors to present their cases in detail - they or any of the parties may ask questions
  • question applicants on how conditions added to the licence may affect their business
  • ask applicants and objectors to sum up their cases

The Clerk will announce the case; the Traffic Commissioner will make some opening remarks and then call upon the Vehicle Examiner to read his report. Occasionally the Traffic Commissioner will suggest the Vehicle Examiner report be adopted (presumably to speed up proceedings). Once the Vehicle Examiner’s evidence is in you have an opportunity to cross-examine the Vehicle Examiner. There are no rules of evidence as such however the principles of cross-examination remain the same as in any other Court.

You will then be invited to call your witnesses (i.e. you and /or your transport manager or any other witnesses you decide to call). The Traffic Commissioner may ask questions. In fact, sometimes Traffic Commissioner will ask a great many questions as this is by its very nature an inquisitorial tribunal. The Traffic Commissioner can then hear closing submissions.

The Traffic Commissioner is directed to revoke a licence under S 27 of the Act if more than one serious offence has been committed (in the case of individuals) or if the operator has lost its repute, does not have the requisite professional competence or sufficient financial standing.

The traffic commissioner will announce their decision at the time, or give it in writing later, usually within 28 days.

 

Decision and penalties

The traffic commissioner can decide to:

  • refuse to grant a licence
  • refuse to vary an existing licence
  • attach conditions to a licence
  • grant a licence allowing fewer vehicles than the number applied for
  • impose financial penalties on registered bus service operators
  • end or suspend an existing licence
  • disqualify an individual or a company from having a licence
  • disqualify transport managers

You can appeal against the decision.

 

Appeals

You can appeal to the Upper Tribunal against a traffic commissioner decision (form UT12).

You must send the form to the tribunal within 1 month of the traffic commissioner’s written decision. The address is on the form.

Find out more about making an appeal to the Upper Tribunal.

 

Further information

The Office of the Traffic Commissioner has produced a detailed guide to traffic commissioner public inquiries. It includes further information on:

  • how you might be called to an inquiry
  • how you might find out if an inquiry is to be held
  • how they work on the day
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