7 Grumpy meets VOSA

All those using a 4x4 and a big trailer commercially be warned. A visit from VOSA can significantly damage your wealth. Complete ignorance of the legislation is absolutely no defence, but full compliance with the regulations is demonstrably impossible when using this sort of dual use vehicle.

Trailer at New Inn.JPGGrumpy has been driving happily around the UK with his oddball machinery on a BIG trailer for well over ten years, covering 500,000 miles without incident.

Grumpy's vehicle and trailers have been inspected by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) on three occasions.

The first was in July 2008 when all was well, including all lights, loading weights and loading security.

The second was in late October 2008 and, once again, all was well.

On the third cccasion Grumpy was fined £200 for not having a tachograph and banned from towing anything other than a 750kg trailer on the road until the tacho was fitted.

My normal Ifor Williams trailers tip the scales at 660kg empty, so the usable payload is decidedly limited without breaching the 3500kg gross train weight that triggers the need for tachos. There is even disagreement here between VOSA officers - the legislation refers to maximum permissible weight. Guidance from VOSA, updated in 2009, defines permissible maximum weight as "the lower of the weights of the vehicle and trailer added together or the maximum train weight on the vehicle identification numer (VIN) plate of the tow vehicle".

Various interpretations from VOSA include the weight as per a weighbridge and the maximum possible weight i.e. the maximum train weight regardless of the actual loading.

If VOSA cannot agree this interpretation amongst themselves, how the hell do I know which interpretation I am going to have to deal with at the next VOSA check?

Whoops, there is another hitch. There is no digital tacho made for the Daihatsu 4x4. This means that I cannot use the two I have in my fleet to tow. Fortunately, I found a second hand analog unit and, £412 later, it was fitted and calibrated. At last we were road legal on one of the rather old, but serviceable, vehicles.

A new digital tacho was sourced and hurriedly fitted to my Nissan Navara, and off we went. Well, not quite! The tacho is a digital unit costing £1,100, with a £400 fitting charge and needing a special part from Nissan costing £245. This digital tacho requires digital driver cards and cannot be used by us lesser mortals who have never heard of a digital driver card. The DVLC take fifteen working days to issue these cards. If I drop in on the DVLC in Swansea it will only take a week! The irony is I was on my way to South Wales when I got pulled over at Swindon by VOSA.

If that was the end of it then fair enough, but now I learn that the drivers need another gadget to read their own cards, so they can see if they are in compliance, and that the office needs to be able to download the data from their cards to carry out mandatory compliance checks.

Here we go again. Driver gizmos cost £35 each, and an office downloader device is a further cool £379. Training for the staff to analyse their own, and all the drivers' cards, is another £450. The software licence allows just fifteen downloads before a further licence fee is required, so this is a recurring cost. Will the bills ever end?

My new, 170 horsepower, air conditioned, very comfortable Nissan Navara was off the road until the digital cards turned up from Swansea. What was that about postal strikes? So, instead, I was forced to drive the analog tacho equipped, P reg, 100hp (if it is lucky) Daihatsu 4x4, which is just a bit gutless, has no air con and is decidedly cramped and uncomfortable to drive for long periods. Well done VOSA, that enforced substitution really will make me less fatigued on a long drive!!!

I am no longer in the first flushes of youth and I retain my paper driving licence, which is valid until 2020. I applied for my digital driver card and I am told by an "agent" from the DVLC that first I need a photocard licence. What nonsense is this? I already have a licence that has served me well since 1977 and remains valid until 2020.

Unable to talk sense to a scripted puppet located in some remote call centre, I duly apply. My photo has to be taken and carefully crafted to fit the required size on both forms. I decide to get the forms checked by the local DVLA in a dismal office that is about as welcoming as a visit to a closed prison. I take my passport details, my completed form, my grumpy picture, a sworn statement from my neighbour saying that I am me (well, who else would own up to a photo like that?) and a cheque for £38. I get good news, and save £20 as I do not need to have a photocard licence to make the digital driver card application!

Apart from the nigh on £3000 costs, the disruption of being unable to do revenue earning work during our busiest period was very stressful but, fortunately, there may be a clause in the legislation I can use; If engaged in horticulture I can travel up to 100km from home to carry out work on site and not need a tacho. However, East Anglia, where I am based, has been baked bone hard and dry to 600mm below the surface, and I had to put off local autumn maintenance jobs left right and centre while awaiting some rainfall.

A further consequence of being a digital driver in the VOSA/DVLC/ Police database is that I have to account for all my working hours in a log book, except when I have my digital card in the tachograph. Yes,that means every working hour, including time in front of my PC doing accounts, quotes and such like at home. The total hours are then limited by 'drivers rest hours legislation', just so I that am not too fatigued to spend between five and ten hours each week driving to and from site with a loaded trailer.

VOSA clearly have no choice but to trust me to record my 'away from vehicle' working hours, but need a tacho for my driving hours. Hmmmm.

My new digital tacho was fitted by an approved tacho fitting agency and I had no say as to where it should placed. The agency chose to fit it low down in the centre console behind the gearstick. In operation the tacho flashes error messages, speed violations and the like, to the driver whilst he is driving, and the system requires the driver to acknowledge the message by rummaging about for the 'OK' button.

The distraction caused by looking down to read the messages, and to reach down and forwards to acknowledge them, requires the driver to look away from the road and move to a position where he has less than full control of the steering wheel. This is manifestly unsafe and I shall be doing no such thing when driving. Hmmmm.

It is also impossible to use the tachograph speed readout instead of the vehicle speedometer because, to regularly check the speed on the tacho, it requires looking downwards and moving position as described above, whereas the vehicle speedo can be read at a glance.

Should the tacho speed and the vehicle speedo differ significantly in calibration, then speed violations may well be recorded despite staying within the speed indicated on the vehicle speedometer

The tacho is set for 56 mph, or its kilometre equivalent, to record speeding violations when towing but, of course, the speed limit for a vehicle of this type with trailer is 60mph or the 100kph that my analog tacho indicates as overspeed. When I asked for this installation error to be corrected the fitting garage required a further £200 calibration fee. Needless to say, I refused to pay and the error remains.

The tacho senses when a trailer is attached, but it continually requires acknowledgement of overspeed when travelling at a perfectly legal 70mph without a trailer. At night, the continual flashing in the cab that results from spurious overspeed messages is a nuisance and a driving distraction. So, it has been 'retrofitted' with a length of black insulation tape across its display screen for use whenever the trailer is disconnected.The tacho will be recording perfectly legal speeds up to 70mph as a series of violations. It does the same when there is no driver card in its slot, and records that the vehicle has been used without a driver card in situ. This is an offence only if the trailer is attached.

Just collecting the Navarra from the tacho fitters has caused thirty speeding violations, and a prolonged period of driving, without a driver card in the tacho, to be incorrectly and irremovably recorded.

HGVs have speed limiters fitted that prevent overspeed. No such device is present on the Navarra so, to avoid overspeeds but drive at a reasonable pace that does not see me continually being passed by HGVs, I am constantly checking that I am not exceeding 60mph. My judgement of speed is good enough to maintain my speed, plus or minus a few mph, with an occasional check of the speedo, but the tacho flags every instance of overspeed lasting more than one minute, the time to travel one mile at 60mph.

This is important because, when the tacho record is downloaded, the software automatically produces a warning letter for the driver for each and every overspeed. The company is obliged, by the regulations, to issue these letters to the driver in order to enforce compliance. This is a nightmare to administrate as the office staff have no idea when the rules apply, i.e. whether the overspeed was recorded with or without a trailer and if it was over 100kph.

Further complications arise because I adjust the air pressure in the rear tyres of the Navarra according to the load being transported. This interferes with the calibration of the tacho and so, every time I change tyre pressures (as laid down in the vehicle makers handbook) I should, according to the tachograph regulations, get the tacho recalibrated at a cool £200 per go!

This requirement is absolute nonsense as the vehicle would never be out of the calibration workshops. I am faced with the rather stark choice - drive with tyres that are unsafe because they are below the manufacturer's recommended pressures for the loads being carried - an offence in itself - or drive with tyre pressures that invalidate the calibration of the tachograph, another offence.

Quite what VOSA will make of the records kept in the tacho itself - of thousands of speeding violations and numerous extensive periods of driving without a driver card in place - I hate to think. I will probably be required to make yet another manual entry in my log just to drive the Navarra when it is out of scope of the tacho regulations. Hang on. If I am driving out of scope of the tacho regulations I have no need to touch the tachograph or make any records whatever and I cannot be compelled to do so. Period.
Hey, don't blame me for this utter mess, I neither wrote the rules nor did I make VOSA apply their present interpretation. This is an ill thought out piece of legislation rushed through to comply with European legislation that was designed, primarily, to ensure HGV drivers do not suffer excess fatigue at the wheel and do not break speed limits. With an HGV, the tacho is required at all times and, clearly, the tacho regulations and tachos themselves were designed for an HGV, not a dual use pickup truck with a towball.

This mess resulted from the poor drafting of primary legislation and is just a bit more than over the top for a company whose drivers cover, on average, less than 2,000 miles each month between them.

All those using a 4x4 and a big trailer commercially - and there must have been well over 150 examples serving Saltex and Harrogate - be warned. A visit from VOSA can significantly damage your wealth. Complete ignorance of the legislation is absolutely no defence, but full compliance with the regulations is demonstrably impossible when using this sort of dual use vehicle.

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Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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