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February 28, 2013

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Fears that private-sector vehicle testing will result in weak safety

The privatisation of heavy-vehicle testing could have a detrimental impact on road safety, unions from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) have warned a committee of MPs.

Giving oral evidence to a Transport Select Committee hearing into the work of the regulator, VOSA trade union-side secretary Kevin Warden said unions were “deeply concerned about privatisation”, as the incentive for profit could undermine commitments on road safety.

He explained that VOSA strongly regulated the testing of cars and light vehicles, yet inspectors often find that vehicles have been incorrectly tested by the private sector. In light of the commercial pressures of running heavy vehicles, he said there are obvious concerns that the same problems could arise if heavy-vehicle testing were to be undertaken by the private sector.

Faced with the prospect of rising costs to pay for VOSA’s testing estate, the regulator and industry agreed to undertake a testing transfer programme several years ago. The creation of private-sector Authorised Testing Facilities (ATFs) aimed to increase the number of locations where customers can take their lorries and buses for an annual test. These centres are closer to where vehicles are maintained and increase choice for customers; however, the tests must currently be performed by VOSA examiners.

The haulage industry believes that this restriction is hampering the usefulness of ATFs and it wants tests to be allowed to be carried out by staff who are not employed by VOSA.

When asked by the Transport Select Committee if staff employed at the ATFs should be able to conduct MOT tests for heavy vehicles, Warden said there should be a strategically located ‘backbone’ of VOSA test facilities, supplemented by ATFs providing additional testing capacity. He told MPs that the incentive to maximise profits could lead testers in the private sector to cut corners, whereas VOSA testers are motivated by road safety.

James Firth, head of road freight and enforcement policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA) – who also gave evidence to the MPs – told SHP that the industry is “not going into this blindly” and it recognises the need to apply caution if businesses are allowed to organise their own vehicle testing, or self-test vehicles.

He said: “The FTA is not looking at the MOT system as a model for taking this forward. But we think there are other models, possibly in other industries, which could be looked at to make sure appropriate processes are there in the background.”

He also claimed that the pass rate for heavy vehicles at ATFs is only slightly better than that at VOSA sites.

Warden also expressed concerns to the Committee that private testing could undermine VOSA’s enforcement intelligence. Heavy-vehicle test results feed into the Agency’s enforcement targeting system, known as Operator Compliance Risk Score (OCRS), to help it decide which vehicles should be inspected.

An operator receives OCRS points when a test or inspection finds a defect, or an infringement of the rules, and a high score means a vehicle is more likely to be stopped for a roadside inspection. By allowing operators to test their own vehicles, there would be greater pressure to pass vehicles, as this might reduce the likelihood of those vehicles being stopped at the roadside, argued Warden.

Speaking to SHP, Firth refuted the suggestion, pointing out that the OCRS score is based on the “first-time pass rate”, so defects would still be reported to VOSA.

By March, the regulator aims to have opened more than 200 ATFs and is committed to offering more testing days to existing ATFs; expanding the ATF network; and changing the services available at VOSA locations to support the move to non-VOSA sites.

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