Imagine a world where your job is to keep the roads and motorways safe by making sure lorry drivers are operating properly maintained vehicles and not falling asleep at the wheel. Now imagine that the government which has charged you with this vital role won't allow you access to all of the relevant data it collects, won't give you the equipment you need, won't give you proper teeth to enforce the law and won't even provide you with a workshop.
This world exists, and as I recently discovered it is the one inhabited by the tireless staff of the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). I visited their Doxey Sector Office off the M6 near Stafford, and even this sometimes disillusioned devotee of the nation's transport systems was more than a little surprised and disappointed at what he saw.
Take the tachograph. It's not a perfect system by any means but the existence of this largely unloved device is designed to ensure drivers are only on the road for a sustainable period of time, and are less likely to fall asleep behind the wheel of forty-four tonnes of fast-moving metal.
Within half an hour of arriving for my visit I had seen a foreign HGV with a cheat device fitted to allow the driver to operate undetected, well over his legal hours. The DVSA staff told me the same vehicle had been pulled over with a similar dangerous system fitted not six months earlier. I would have assumed the inspectors who stopped the vehicle would have hi-tech equipment to detect such frauds. In fact, they have had to build ingenious devices of their own to do the job because none has been supplied - again, without a workshop.
One might think the driver would have the book thrown at him. In reality imposing effective penalties on hauliers from overseas is virtually impossible for DVSA staff. I saw one rig with no trailer brakes. The only sanction available is a pitifully small fine - just £100 irrespective of how many safety breaches there are. When the necessary repairs might cost forty times that sum it's hardly surprising that foreign operators take their chances. Compare that with a domestic car driver being hit for £1000, plus three points on the licence for each bald tyre.
Similarly, DVSA has no powers to put real points on an overseas driver's licence. With penalties so pathetic, is it any wonder so many run the risks and cut corners? Is it any wonder our own law-abiding drivers, facing (rightfully) tough financial and professional penalties for breaking the law, find it difficult to compete?
DVSA needs more powers and they wouldn't be hard to apply. Fines could be increased or simply applied to each mechanical defect found on these vehicles. There could be a "sin bin" system ordering the vehicle off the road for a period of weeks. Non-compliant companies could be banned from UK roads until they've proved they've put their houses in order. It's really not hard to come up with ways of enforcing the laws more effectively.
Similarly, the Road User Levy was introduced to make all drivers of vehicles over twelve tonnes contribute to wear and tear of the highways. Failing to pay carries a £300 fine (three times what our foreign driver was charged for his dodgy brakes). There is a government database showing who has paid, and again, DVSA has limited access to the information.
Then there are the cabotage cheats. The government website defines cabotage thus: "Cabotage is the haulage of goods for hire or reward in one member state by a vehicle registered in a different member state. You can carry out a limited number of cabotage jobs in another EU member state if you're a UK haulier with a Community Authorisation. The jobs must follow a journey where goods were transported from the UK or another member state. You can only carry out up to 3 cabotage jobs in 7 days within the host member state."
All sensible enough and clearly, the incentive to carry out more than the limit of three jobs in seven days is great, especially if the enforcing body (yes, the DVSA) has little chance of catching those who break the rules.
UK Customs authorities, working with the ports, have a system called Freight Transport System (FTS). It takes details from ship manifests relating to vehicle/driver movements in and out of the country. DVSA was given a trial of the system for its use some months ago and found it highly useful in spotting where drivers were claiming to have taken a month off work when they had in fact driven into the country during that period. After the trial period it was taken away again. You couldn't make it up.
Having seen their work at first hand I'm really grateful that the guardians of our roads, the staff of the DVSA are there, potentially keeping all of us that bit safer. The final (or first) insult to those quiet dedicated people comes in the form of the planning laws. It took three years for the agency to get permission to build its inspection station at Doxey. How many lives might have been saved if that delay had been avoided? How many more are at risk because inspectors have one hand tied behind their backs by the very government which charges them with our protection?