Fleet maintenance: trailers – traction-only services

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Question: what is the difference in legal maintenance standards required of a business pulling its own trailers compared to when it is drawing those of third parties?

Answer: there is none.

This issue has been flagged in the most recent Traffic Commissioner for Great Britain Annual Report 2021/2022. It is a topic that is being given significant prominence, and operators need to be aware of the standards expected, as well as policies to be put in place. The report notes:

“In several high-profile cases this year it has been suggested that some trailer suppliers (including those based offshore) are avoiding responsibilities to ensure safe operation of trailers on GB roads. The lack of adequate arrangements regarding regular and frequent brake testing has been a prominent failing. The potential impact on British roads is significant and the traffic commissioners have felt the need to issue several warnings regarding this to companies involved in this type of third-party trailer operation.”

As a matter of law, the user of the vehicle (the operator) and the driver are responsible for the condition of the goods vehicle on a public road – that includes any trailer drawn by it, whether it is the operator’s, whether it is being used temporarily by the operator or whether it is being pulled as a traction service for a third party. (Some businesses engage solely in third-party haulage services.)

So, any proceedings for related offences will be taken against the operator/driver, just as actions taken by DVSA, such as prohibitions, will be recorded against the operator’s licence, regardless of ownership or length of time a trailer is in possession.

The Report highlights this:

“For the avoidance of doubt, operators providing traction-only services to third-party trailers are responsible in law for the condition of that trailer when in use. Transport managers are also required by law to manage the transport operation continuously and effectively. The operator’s licence requires “satisfactory facilities and arrangements for maintaining the vehicles used under the licence in a fit and serviceable condition”. In that context, “vehicles” includes any trailer (including those from abroad) being drawn.”

In order to meet these requirements, Traffic Commissioner expect the following to be considered and observed, which we summarise below:

  • operators providing traction-only services must have trailer authority on their licence, and this must specify an inspection period
  • if an operator or the transport manager is not satisfied that the trailer maintenance arrangements are satisfactory, the trailer must not be used; whatever the commercial impact of that may be
  • trailer providers are likely to have their own inspection period – an operator must be satisfied it is appropriate, based in part on the age and characteristics of the trailers and work involved
  • operators must ensure that any trailer it operates meets the stated frequency for inspection. If they cannot satisfy themselves of this, then the operator must make their own assessment, record this on the licence and inspect the trailer as per the declared intervals
  • operators should refer to the current DVSA Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness, the link to the brake testing guidance, as well as the IRTE publication: Roadworthiness: Industry Best Practice for third party trailer operators, which includes a suggested “Co-operation request letter to trailer owner” (This is a helpful guide.)
  • operators should seek from trailer suppliers, and have access to, all relevant information: annual test expiry, date of the last preventative inspection (PMI), date of last roller brake test (where trailers are without electronic brake performance monitoring) and confirmation it was laden, contact details for reporting defects
  • possible additional driver training for effective walk-around checks
  • foreign trailers: the position is exactly the same for non-UK trailers, e.g. unaccompanied trailers picked up at ports. Operators and transport managers must be satisfied that ‘satisfactory arrangements’ for maintenance are in place, failing which non-UK trailers should not be drawn. There must be a programme of PMIs.

It is the case that Traffic Commissioners will wish to see evidence of operators having in place formal policies and statements, confirming the respective positions of, and the relationship between, operators and trailers owners. If not already in place, this needs to be addressed.

For an operator, such a statement and policy would contain the following:

  • confirmation that the operator and driver understand that they have full legal responsibility for any trailer drawn by its vehicle
  • a declaration that the operator is satisfied with the arrangements in place for trailers being kept fit and serviceable
  • confirmation that drivers have received dedicated walk-around check training for trailers, to include MOT expiry checks, as well as safety inspection check and brake testing within the date stated; and that if not MOT’d or outside those dates, the trailer will not be used
  • the ability under the arrangements to decline a trailer that has a safety defect
  • confirmation that documentation setting out the above will be carried within the vehicle.

A trailer owner does not, of course, have its own operator’s licence (unless it is operating goods vehicles in its own right) and hence is not under the jurisdiction of the regulator, i.e. the Traffic Commissioner. Nevertheless, it would be expected there be set out a statement of its responsibilities, confirming the following:

  • assessment of the trailer inspection frequency, by reference to the DVSA Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness, and confirmation of the service interval
  • confirmation arrangements are in place to maintain trailers in a fit and serviceable condition
  • arrangements to display information on trailer headboard or by chassis Ministry plate: MOT expiry date, dates of last PMI, date of last roller brake test (unless fitted with electronic performance monitoring, in which case there must be arrangements in place to alert the operator or otherwise ensure removal from service), defect report contact details
  • confirmation that there will be no commercial impact or consequence where an operator refuses to operate a trailer because there is a safety defect.

We can expect to see a prominent focus and concentration in this area of concern, highlighted in the Annual Report.

Whilst the information above deals primarily with third-party trailers use in traction-only operations, it remains the case that operators must be similarly focussed on trailers they may have in their possession – such as those on short-term loan or hire, where it is equally important to know the full safety background and maintenance history.

Contact our road transport solicitors today

If you require any advice with regard to Goods and Passenger Operator Licencing, including advice concerning DVSA Investigations, correspondence with the Office of The Traffic Commissioner or Traffic Commissioner Preliminary Hearing/Public Inquiry work, then please contact us using our online enquiry form or by calling 0330 404 7949.


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