Last reviewed 12 December 2017

The Traffic Commissioners have warned operators that brake testing must be carried out better and more often as a part of routine safety inspections. They say that far too often, Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) enforcement officers are finding that testing of brake performance is far too often carried out in a less than rigorous way — and often not carried out at all.

This warning in the autumn of 2017 comes almost a year after a haulage company director and his unqualified mechanic were convicted of manslaughter at Bristol Crown Court following an incident when a 32-tonne lorry ran out of control on a hill in Bath and killed four people. In the intervening period, the Commissioners warn, they have seen little or no improvement in the recording of brake test information.

In this article, Richard Smith outlines the operator’s responsibilities for brake testing and what is required to satisfy the Traffic Commissioners.

Safety inspections

The Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness published by the DVSA makes clear that every safety inspection must include an assessment of the braking performance of the vehicle and trailer and the Commissioners have reminded operators that this requirement applies equally to all sizes of undertaking and all types of vehicle. Best practice is to test the vehicle/trailer in a laden condition. The guide strongly advises that brake testing is done using a calibrated roller brake tester to measure the brake performance at each individual wheel as well as the overall efficiency on every safety inspection. The Commissioners are more insistent and say that every inspection must include a metered test.

The guide does allow the possibility of using a calibrated decelerometer (Tapley meter) to test vehicles without trailers but this will only ascertain the overall braking efficiency and not identify any deficiencies with the brakes on individual wheels that may be being compensated for within the overall system. While the Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness accepts that it may not always be possible to obtain a full brake efficiency test on every inspection, both it and the Commissioners say that a road test method for every inspection will not be adequate. The expectation is that vehicles and trailers will have at least three metered tests spread throughout the year in addition to the MoT. It must be noted, however, that roller brake testing cannot be carried out on some types of vehicle (those with permanent four-wheel drive, for example).

For safety inspections in general, and brake inspections in particular, the guide is clear that all the items covered by the annual MoT test must be covered. A copy of the test inspection manual can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.

Driver defect reports

It is a requirement that drivers must have a means of reporting any defects or symptoms experienced while driving that could prevent safe operation. This is usually done by a driver defect report form, blank copies of which must be kept in the cab. During operations, drivers will become aware of actual or potential brake system problems by the illumination of various warning lights (or the failure of a light to go out after the initial confidence check) or by unusual behaviour of the brakes such as grabbing, pulling the vehicle to one side or general lack of stopping power. In the event of any of these things happening, the driver must consider very carefully whether it is safe to proceed any further and under the culture of safety that is required it generally will not be worth the risk. In any event, the defect must be noted on the driver defect report and the vehicle must not be used again until the fault has been fixed and that repair confirmed by a full-metered roller brake test.

Daily walk-round checks

It is a further requirement that the vehicle and trailer receives a daily check by the driver before the vehicle is used on the road. The checks at this time will be limited to visual and audible ones and will depend on the type of braking system fitted. Smaller goods vehicles less than 3.5 tonnes gross weight normally have hydraulic braking systems with vacuum servo assistance while large goods vehicles have full air brakes but there may be other variations and a range of electronic control systems such as ABS, EBS, ESC, etc. It is important, therefore, that the driver understands exactly what equipment is fitted to his vehicle and how to test it. Critical items in general will be the correct operation of all warning lights, physical condition of air and electrical connections between vehicle and trailer and the time taken for air pressure or vacuum to build up. Integrity and operation of service brakes, secondary systems and parking brakes must all be checked, including any mechanical brakes such as trailer parking brakes.

As with driver defect reports, any faults noticed must be corrected before the vehicle is used and the details recorded. In the case of braking system faults, there must be a full-metered test carried out before the vehicle is released.

Maintenance records

Accurate and sufficient records of maintenance are essential. Not only is this a legal requirement but it will be the only way that an operator can satisfy DVSA examiners and the Traffic Commissioners (and perhaps the court) that the required maintenance is being carried out. In regard to brake testing, the records must show the date of the test, who carried it out and, critically, the detailed results.

The detailed results should show the individual wheel measurements as well as the overall efficiency. Where the brake test equipment can produce a printed report, the printout should be attached to the safety inspection record, but it will be good practice to note the figures on the report itself as well in case the printout becomes detached.

As usual, all records must be retained for 15 months, including walk-round checks and driver defect reports that show faults — which should have been annotated with the repair information (including brake test figures) and signed-off.

Operator’s responsibilities

Operators will know that they must demonstrate an appropriate maintenance system in order to gain an Operator’s Licence in the first place but they are further obliged to ensure that the system is operated properly, with the right checks made at the right intervals with necessary repairs made immediately the need arises.

Maintenance must only be carried out by qualified personnel and ensure that there is a nominated person within their organisation who has the authority to decide whether a vehicle is fit for service, take it out of service if it is not and determine when it is fit to return to service.

Furthermore, operators must provide drivers with a formal reminder of their legal responsibilities and the procedures for reporting defects. They must not place any pressure on drivers to continue driving once a fault has been reported on a vehicle.

The operator in the Bath case referred to by the Traffic Commissioners employed an unqualified and incompetent person at a derisory hourly rate to carry out maintenance on his vehicles and made his driver feel stupid, telling him to keep on driving despite the ABS warning light being illuminated. As a result, he was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for seven and a half years. The “mechanic” was sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

Drivers’ responsibilities

The driver is ultimately responsible for ensuring the roadworthiness of any vehicle he or she drives. This can place drivers in a difficult position if operators do not take their responsibilities seriously but they should remember that it could be their licence, their livelihood, their freedom and their life at stake.

Although the driver of the lorry involved in the Bath crash was found not guilty by the jury, that — like any jury decision, cannot be considered any sort of guide to what a future jury in another case might decide. In any case, it does not prevent the Traffic Commissioner from taking action against the driver’s licence.

Conclusion

The responsibilities of all parties are made very clear by the Traffic Commissioners and by the various manuals published by the DVSA. The consequences of failing in those responsibilities are potentially catastrophic.

The Traffic Commissioners have instructed that operators must make an urgent review of their safety inspection records in respect of brake testing and ensure that proper metered roller brake tests are carried out at least three times a year with the full results being recorded.