Public safety: diesel emissions cheating no different to tachograph fiddling

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The Channel 4 Dispatches investigation aired on 9 April reported on a recent trend in the road transport sector: interference with lorries’ exhaust control systems that are in place to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) which are harmful to health.

This worrying development is being actively policed by the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) and the regulator i.e. Traffic Commissioners who regulate commercial operators of goods and passenger vehicles, the overwhelming majority of whom operate entirely lawfully of course.

In a recent case one Traffic Commissioner stated that there was in fact no difference between disabling the emissions systems on a lorry and fitting a cheat device, such as a magnet, onto a tachograph: both types of activity cause serious injury or death though in different ways, he said.

It is estimated 23,000 premature deaths per annum occur through unacceptably high diesel pollution levels. Where an operator defeats or is able to bypass the normal emissions control system on a lorry the actual emissions may be several times greater than should be the case. In short, deliberate wrongdoing for personal gain directly affects emissions levels and thereby health.

This scam, a criminal offence, can be carried out in a number of ways. One main method is to make the vehicle think that it is using the ‘AdBlue’ liquid when in fact it is not. AdBlue is a substance that has to be used in lorries to mitigate nitrogen oxide but if the AdBlue systems malfunction they are very costly to repair. Fitment of a small cheat device or emulator for a few hundred pounds can avoid the higher repair costs by shutting down the adBlue. But, of course, it means unlawfully circumventing the law that prohibits such an activity. To detect cheat devices a very close inspection of the vehicle has to be carried out, normally by the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

Another method of defeating the emissions systems of a lorry is to hack into the vehicle using a laptop and special software. This is much more difficult to detect.

Operators who engage in such activity can expect to have their operator’s licence removed by a Traffic Commissioner. This will normally be at a public inquiry hearing. Good repute is a mandatory requirement and such criminality is entirely inconsistent with holding a licence. All licensing systems are of course intended to protect the public and ensure that there is fair competition.

Astonishingly, no prosecutions appear to have been brought against persons for engaging in these criminal offences. Action has tended to be in the form of action by Traffic Commissioners against operators and their nominated transport managers. Drivers may not necessarily be aware that the vehicle they are driving is being used unlawfully, of course. This may not always be very plausible.

In one recent case in which a AdBlue gauge never moved Traffic Commissioner Kevin Rooney said: “The operator didn’t notice that this truck never needed AdBlue. That is clear nonsense. He wilfully shut his eyes to the absolutely blindingly obvious”. The licence was revoked.

Nevertheless it is surprising that criminal court action has not been taken where emissions systems have been deliberately bypassed for commercial gain, risking public safety and there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.

For advice and representation in relation to all road transport-related matters please contact Tim Ridyard and Tim Norris on 01284 732111.


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