COVID-19 response – Traffic Commissioners’ Advice to Operators
On Friday 27th March 2020, the Office of the Traffic Commissioner issued updated guidance aimed at both the goods and passenger carrying vehicle industries in the light of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The foreword to the guidance (which can be found here) makes the important point that as the nationwide situation changes, so too will the advice and guidance available to the industry – so operators are encouraged not only to read this guidance carefully, but to continue to look out for updates which are likely to come regularly. The Traffic Commissioner’s guidance confirms that updates will be notified via the Traffic Commissioner’s news alert service – operators should click here to sign up.
The guidance refers to an emergency Statutory Guidance Document published by the OTC, which provides the Traffic Commissioners and their Deputies with directions on the exercise of their functions using the period of the virus outbreak. Common to each area of guidance is that the measures should not be used by any operator as a means of circumventing the licensing regime or to avoid responsibility for existing alleged compliance failings. The guidance is intended to provide proportionate flexibility, mindful of the difficulties caused by the virus pandemic.
As above, we would encourage every operator to read the full guidance carefully, but below is a summary of the key areas covered:
Temporary operation of more goods vehicles than authorised under and existing O-licence, or temporary operation for hire and reward under a restricted licence.
There is provision for Traffic Commissioners to grant exemptions from the above key O-licensing requirements, upon a written request from any operator. Such requests will need to include a proposal and justification for the work to be carried out, and Traffic Commissioners can grant the exemption if it is to meet an urgent public demand caused by, or as a direct result of, the present circumstances. Matters such as financial standing, road safety issues and existing maintenance concerns, general compliance history and arrangements and facilities for ensuring fit and serviceable vehicles are all likely to be considered by any Traffic Commissioner deciding whether to grant such an exemption.
Requests for periods of grace in relation to financial standing
In recognising the extremely difficult trading conditions imposed by the virus outbreak, there is increased provision for operators to apply for a period of grace if they are not able to continue to demonstrate financial standing. To grant a period of grace, the Traffic Commissioners are likely again to have a mind to the operator’s overall road safety and compliance history, as well as the operator’s solvency. Traffic Commissioners have been advised that in these exceptional circumstances, a satisfactory financial check within the last 12 months can be relied upon as evidence in support of granting a period of grace.
For restricted licence holders, there is no provision to grant a period of grace on finance. In these cases, the guidance suggests operators should consider offering an undertaking to allow a finance check to be carried out on a future specified date if they are no longer presently able to meet the requirement to demonstrate sufficient financial resources.
Operating Centres – limited access and exceeding operating centre authorisation
The guidance recognises that there may be some circumstances in which travel restrictions mean that an operator may temporarily lose access to an operating centre. The Traffic Commissioners have been directed that they may consider issuing periods of grace to standard licence holders for temporary operation from an alternative operating centre site in these circumstances. Restricted licence holders – for whom, again, there is no provision for a period of grace – should notify the Traffic Commissioner if they cannot access an operating centre and ask for direction.
For operators needing to park more vehicles than are specified at a particular operating centre (but who remain within their overall operator’s licence authority), the guidance reminds operators to use the digital O-licensing system to submit variation applications, including applications for interim directions where applicable. The Traffic Commissioners will prioritise such applications.
Varying PMI Inspection Intervals
The guidance makes provision in certain limited circumstances for operators to extend the stated PMI inspection interval by either 50% or up to 17 weeks (whichever is less) if they are genuinely unable to keep to the stated interval for reasons relating to the virus outbreak. The principles apply to all standard licence holders, and to restricted licence holders carrying out essential transport services (a full list of those services is included within the guidance).
Most obviously, road safety cannot and must not be compromised, and operators are reminded of the need to have a robust and carefully monitored driver defect reporting scheme in place.
The guidance goes on to provide a number of additional provisions relating to these measures, including the need to have supporting evidence for the need to exceed the interval from maintenance providers and the nature of documents required to be kept on maintenance files, in particular in relation to the rectification of defects (though operators are of course reminded that this is a standard requirement).
The guidance also deals with circumstances in which vehicles are out of service for lengthy periods. Where in the normal course of things these vehicles would require a full PMI before being brought back into service, there are temporary variations dealing with circumstances in which, again, doing so is not possible. The provisions differ depending upon the age of the vehicle and the number of weeks by which the usual inspection interval has been exceeded.
Transport managers in isolation/absent through ill health
Where Transport Managers are unable to attend an operating centre because they are in an “at risk” group as a result of the virus, they are invited to submit a written proposal to the Traffic Commissioner explaining how it is that they propose to fulfil their statutory requirements, which may include using technological means (e.g. accessing and reviewing documents and records electronically).
Of course, absences of c. 14 days (the present recommended self-isolation period for people showing symptoms, or where members of their household are symptomatic), would not usually be notifiable to the Traffic Commissioner – but for any longer period, it may be necessary to apply the the Traffic Commissioner for a period of grace if a more long-term transport management solution is required.
The guidance also recognises that certain Transport Managers or senior personnel may previously have given undertakings to attend training courses by certain dates (e.g. TM CPC refresher courses). Individuals are urged to follow government travel advice, and if doing so means not being in a position to attend a course, the Traffic Commissioner should be notified in writing.
The guidance goes into considerable detail on amended measures for the cancellation, variation and registration of bus services. Operators will be aware that there are existing provisions in place to seek special short notice dispensation for applications. In the light of the present circumstances, the Traffic Commissioners have agreed to a change in the usual registration process, with two email addresses provided for those operators seeking to make variations, cancellations or applications to local bus services. Where short notice dispensation is requested, operators are expected to provide details of the grounds and justification for emergency applications.
Where an operator is unable to meet the requirements of existing services (for example, due to staff shortages caused by the virus pandemic), the guidance indicates that Traffic Commissioners will have regard to the circumstances when it comes to taking any regulatory action.
If you should have any queries about the Traffic Commissioner’s guidance or more generally about steps you should be taking to ensure compliance during the Covid-19 crisis, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us. Call 01279 818280 or click here to send an email.
31 March 2020.