Last reviewed 11 February 2021

In recent years, bridge strikes have become another topic for “single issue” preliminary hearings and public inquiries faced by many operators, reports Andrew Woolfall of Backhouse Jones Solicitors. They join other types of incident such as wheel losses or insecure loads which then lead on to regulatory action being considered because of a single occurrence.

There are, on average, five notifiable bridge strikes each day involving commercial vehicles. While we usually think of bridge strikes as involving road or railways bridges, the subject can also encompass other key parts of infrastructure including tunnels, canal bridges and overhead cables and pipes. The reasons for these collisions are numerous and include drivers ignoring warning signs, forgetting the running heights of their vehicles or simply “chancing it”. One incident even involved a driver reducing the air pressure in his tyres to lower the height of his vehicle and trailer in the hope that he would “just squeeze under” a low bridge to avoid having to take a lengthy detour — needless to say it did not work and he got stuck.

Regardless of the cause, bridge strikes can be extremely dangerous and costly. At worst, lives can be lost or people severely injured. In financial terms, huge sums can be payable, whether relating to actual repairs to the bridge or, where railways are involved, paying compensation for disruption to services. Compensatory payments currently run at around £17 million a year and these are invariably paid by operators and their insurers. Delays to other road or rail users have to be considered along with reputational damage — as a picture of your vehicle wedged under a bridge never looks good.

Penalties and consequences

While prosecutions against drivers are relatively common (and where drivers are prosecuted for dangerous driving, jail sentences are not unknown), the last few years have seen operators, transport managers and drivers invariably called before the Traffic Commissioner. Operators face regulatory action against the operator’s licence, transport managers a loss of good repute or disqualification for the CPC holder, while drivers face action being taken against their vocational driving entitlements.

The revised Senior Traffic Commissioner’s guidance — issued in late 2020 — in relation to an operator or transport manager’s good repute and fitness specifically references bridge strikes as something that may be relevant and states that, “when incidences are brought to the attention of a Traffic Commissioner, they will wish to consider the culpability of the operator and transport manager and they may be called to a public inquiry. The driver can also be expected to be called to a hearing and may face a period of suspension.”

While there is no “guideline tariff” for action to be taken against operators or transport managers, the Senior Traffic Commissioner’s guidance and direction suggests that when considering a driver, where the bridge strike was a result of their carelessness or negligence, the starting point should be a revocation of their HGV/PCV licence and a six-month disqualification.

Obligations regarding running heights

In September 2020, the Senior Traffic Commissioner started writing to operators to remind them of their obligations when it comes to running heights and this, combined with what we see at preliminary and public inquiry hearings, makes it clear that when looking at operators, the Traffic Commissioners will be concerned to investigate many aspects of the business operations including:

  • the risk assessments the operator undertakes with regards to both vehicles and delivery routes

  • the steps taken to plan vehicle routes including what the operator has done to find out about low bridges in the areas that the vehicles travel

  • confirmation that motor vehicles and trailers are properly marked with the running heights (and that these have been checked by the operator) so that drivers have this information readily available and are not expected to have to measure the vehicles or perform complicated calculations themselves

  • training given to drivers to make them aware of issues concerning vehicle heights and bridge strikes and, just as importantly, what to do if such incidents occur

  • training given to planners as to what advice they should be giving to drivers

  • whether checking running heights and setting in cab height indicators forms part of the recorded first use inspection by the driver and whether drivers have access to height conversion charts

  • having clear policies in relation to in cab sat nav devices and specifically forbidding the use of “normal” car sat navs as opposed to those specifically for commercial vehicles and which incorporate low bridge routing and warnings.

Major incident planning

Any operator who has a vehicle involved in a bridge strike incident should have a major incident plan to deal with such eventualities. This should include:

  • the reporting of the bridge strike immediately to the relevant authorities, including the Police, Network Rail, the Highways Agency or the British Transport Police, as appropriate.

    Like any normal road traffic incident, where there is damage to property, the matter must be reported to the police. Failure to make a report as soon as practicable, or in any event within 24 hours, is a further offence committed by the driver which, on its own, carries a fine, discretionary disqualification or between 5 and 10 penalty points

  • informing the business insurers

  • making an initial report to the Traffic Commissioner and advising that a more detailed report will follow in due course.

While there is some debate among lawyers as to whether or not an LGV operator has an obligation to make a formal notification to the Commissioner, there is a legal requirement upon PSV operators, by virtue of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981. Any debate as to whether goods vehicle operators should or should not notify is, to some extent, immaterial as the Traffic Commissioners clearly take the view that a bridge strike is a notifiable occurrence.

Conducting an investigation

Operators should always conduct their own thorough investigation into a bridge strike incident and rectify any shortcomings in their processes and procedures that are highlighted as a result. They should retrain staff where this is required and take disciplinary action as appropriate. The Traffic Commissioner will want to know what the operator has learned from an incident and what steps have been taken to ensure that there is no further repetition.

Once a detailed investigation has been completed, it is then good practice to send the findings to the Traffic Commissioner as set out above. Operators should not shy away from communicating with their regulator — if they don’t or are slow to, it is highly likely that the Commissioner will find out about the incident in any event (it is Network Rail’s policy to report all operators involved in bridge strikes to the Commissioner). This will then lead to the Commissioner chasing the operator for an explanation and also considering why action should not be taken against the licence for the failure to report.

In considering what systems and procedures, including training and guidance, an operator should have in place to avoid bridge strikes taking place, there are plenty of reference materials that operators and transport managers can refer to. Network Rail publishes several guides for managers, planners and drivers which can be found here:

How to prevent vehicles from hitting bridges — GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

When training drivers, it is always useful to refer them to the Senior Traffic Commissioner’s guidance, which for driver conduct (including case studies for bridge strikes) can be found at Normal.dot 15/07/2007 (publishing.service.gov.uk).