There are many issues pertaining to vehicle and road use whether it be domestic or commercial use, which have been brought on by the ongoing pandemic. Such key areas feature below.
General motoring matters and road use
Whilst the Government’s decision to extend MOTs by 6 months where expiring post 30 March 2020 is likely to relieve individuals of criminal liability – but not those whose certificates expired between 23 March - 30 March – civil liability remains unaffected where accidents arise as a result of mechanical defects; road users remain under strict instructions to ensure vehicles are safe to drive. Any warranty contracts may be adversely affected by reduced access to servicing.
For those drivers finding themselves with a notice of intended prosecution or request for details of the driver, the lack of availability of the speed awareness diversionary course means that far more drivers are faced with an endorsement of penalty points.
There has been an increase in the number of reported drivers racing on UK roads and using the opportunity on quieter roads to flout the Highway Code. If prosecuted, these individuals are likely to find themselves before the court and to see the magistrates’ powers of discretionary disqualification invoked.
Manner of driving
The advice to stay two metres apart has brought with it practical ramifications in terms of road layout, road signage and geographical location. The necessity for pedestrians to move into the road to avoid other pedestrians and the increased numbers of cyclists has meant increased caution is required on the road.
Without that level of increased caution and if found to be driving below the standard expected, drivers could be investigated for an offence of Driving Without Due Care and Attention (Careless Driving) under the Road Traffic Act 1988.
On conviction the magistrates have the power to impose between three and nine penalty points along with the imposition of a financial penalty based on income. The court also has a discretionary power to disqualify from driving, should they deem it necessary.
Driving tests have been suspended for the foreseeable future and all 324 driving test centres across the UK are temporarily closed. Critical workers are able to take an emergency test if this is deemed necessary.
Driving instructors have been unable to work due to the close proximity required with a learner driver in a vehicle.
The government guidelines now request that we travel safely unless we are experiencing any coronavirus symptoms, are self isolating or are clinically extremely vulnerable. We are encouraged to walk, cycle or drive and public transport should be avoided wherever possible. The question now is whether a journey is necessary but the decision is left to the individual.
The government’s guidance on this is: ”before you travel, consider if your journey is necessary and if you can, stay local. Try to reduce your travel. This will help keep the transport network running and allow people who need to make essential journeys to travel. You can reduce your travel by:
- working from home where possible
- shopping less frequently and shopping locally”
The transport and haulage industry
International and domestic freight transport (including by air, ship, road and rail and including roll-on/roll-off transport) is classified by UK government as an essential activity in the context of its travel advice amid COVID-19.
Both the HSE and Public Health England have issued guidance for the sector.
In addition government guidance from the Department of Transport can be found in the following:
- COVID-19 Safe Transport guide for operators
- COVID-19 Advice for the Freight Transport industry
In the UK, domestic freight providers are also essential services. The government emphasises the health and safety responsibilities of all organisations connected with freight transport in relation to running transport terminals, warehouses and distribution centres with responsibilities that include providing access to drivers and crew to sufficient waiting space as well as toilets and washing facilities in accordance with the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
The initial difficulties for drivers’ access to washing and rest facilities were put to Dominic Raab during parliamentary questions recently and subsequently, the drivers’ hours regulation has been relaxed until the end of May. This has enabled operational flexibility.
The transport secretary Grant Shapps announced in April flexibility in renewing expiring driving licences and the temporary removal of the D4 medical as long as a driver is fit to drive.
Initial difficulties included a shortage of drivers, which was partly due to the number of drivers in self-isolation.
Since the initial lockdown disruption, the haulage industry had to adapt and keep essential supplies moving. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) reassured the country that the lack of stock was not a supply issue; rather it was the rapid change in consumer habits and restricted movement within industries that caused the disruption. This steadied as consumers observed that most products were available on the shelves.
The industry has been pivotal in ensuring the movement of food and medical supplies. At the same time fleets of trucks that would ordinarily carry non-essential supplies have been parked up. Cash flow issues have been experienced by both national haulage businesses and small business with disruption to the payment of consignments and invoices.
With the initial closures of many construction sites, building and construction haulage has been drastically cut. This is now likely to increase again given the opening of sites and trade suppliers.
As the availability of COVID-19 testing increases, haulage drivers will be a priority for testing moving forward. This has already been established with the categorisation of the industry as essential workers and those eligible for immediate testing have included lorry drivers, maintenance staff, transport managers and people who control or plan the movement of goods.
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has published information on the implications of coronavirus on travel insurance and other types of insurance, including the haulage sector.
On 7 May the Road Haulage Association (RHA) published a survey response on the impact of COVID-19 on the haulage industry. This was directed at the issues affecting the industry and what support the industry needs to recover. Key findings across three surveys found issues of drivers furloughed, drivers being inactive through isolation and trucks being inactive due to supply chain breakdown and operational difficulties. Most impacted were general haulage companies, manufacturing distributors, construction transportation, car transporting and removals.
The RHA submitted a joint industry letter to the government on 17 April 2020 depicting operators in primary food and medicine distribution being put under heavy operational pressure. Those relying on construction, removals, waste recycling, car transporting, retail manufacturing, events and fuel reported significant downturns. A large proportion of lorries were parked up and cash flow was affected with customers requesting to extend payment terms. Representations were made in terms of rates, vehicle excise duty, road levy/tolls and fuel duty and a continued flexible furlough was requested.
Operators have reported a huge impact on their finances, particularly cash flow and difficulties securing loans through the coronavirus business interruption scheme. 73% of those surveyed said cash flow had significantly reduced.
The Traffic Commissioners have published statutory guidance outlining the more flexible approach they are taking to various issues during lockdown along with a remote audit framework. Similarly the FTA has entered into consultation with government and issued guidance for members.
‘Working Safely during Coronavirus’ guidelines were issued by the UK government on 11 May 2020. Haulage operators will need to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment to confirm:
- That a risk assessment has been carried out and is in place
- The results have been shared with staff and others in the workplace
- Cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures are in place
- All reasonable steps have been taken to maintain a 2 metre distance in the workplace
- Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, everything practical has been done to manage the transmission risk and
- All reasonable steps have been taken to help people work from home.
Businesses that employ 50 people or more are expected to publish their risk assessment on their website.
Clearly when looking at and conducting a COVID-19 risk assessment, operators should consider the following:
- Social distancing in vehicles
- Designated team working
- Cleaning the workplace
- Personal protection equipment (PPE) such as gloves and face coverings
- Managing customers, visitors and contractors
- Inbound and outbound goods
- Workforce management
- Who should go to work
In addition to overview guidelines for all sectors, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a template risk assessment for road haulage that can be adapted to identify the control of COVID-19 risks. The HSE risk assessment template can be found here.
In addition, specific workplace based guidance has been published by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy (BEIS). Relevant documents include:
- Working safely during Coronavirus in offices and contact centres.
- Working safely during Coronavirus in or from a vehicle
- Working safely during Coronavirus in factories, plants and warehouses.
Additional guidance for transport providers published by the Department for Transport is here.
The RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013) system of reporting accidents applies in the context of coronavirus when an unintended incident at work has led to someone’s possible or actual exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a dangerous occurrence.
The number of new claims notification forms (CNFs) issued in April 2020 demonstrate a drop in figures compared to those issued in the same period in 2019. This is also consistent with reporting from insurers themselves, who have indicated that claims notifications on a first party basis from their policyholders have decreased by up to 70% in motor and other claims lines.
An initial and perhaps short term impact has been that a number of cases have been reported to have settled during the lockdown. This may well be as a result of claimants’ immediate financial concerns.
Restrictions on movement and use of motor vehicles initially resulted in a sharp decrease in motor vehicle collisions. That immediate downturn has started to plateau and is likely to rise again as the roads busy and people see a societal restriction relaxation, taking opportunities to travel that they may well not have considered during the life changes of lock down.
It is anticipated that the value of claims may rise due to the number of people requiring replacement vehicles for longer periods as repairs and inspections are only just beginning to go ahead.
The well documented whiplash reforms have been delayed until 2021.
Crown Prosecution Service and the courts
The Coronavirus Act 2020 has brought with it new legislation on social distancing, travel and antisocial behaviour which is enforced by the UK police forces. The Crown Prosecution Service has issued new guidelines on the review of live prosecutions and guidance on charging decisions for the police.
The criminal courts have continued to function during COVID-19, albeit on a priority case basis and utilising remote technology wherever possible. Jury trials have begun to recommence under strict adherence to the two metre rule and health and safety requirements on building access and use.
It is clear from recent history that the prevalence of COVID-19 and the resulting government guidelines have had an immediate and forceful impact on general motoring, domestic road use and commercial freight operators and hauliers.
Moving forward, a comprehensive awareness of regulations and updated knowledge as to real time issues will be essential.
Lindsay Orr, Solicitor, BLM