Opinions differ over DfT's relaxation of drivers’ hours rules

The decision of the Department for Transport (DfT) to agree to a temporary and limited exceptional relaxation of the enforcement of EU drivers’ hours rules, following continuing turmoil in Calais, has been met with a mixed response.

DfT’s ruling applies only to drivers whose journeys are delayed due to the industrial action or disruption at Calais and who: have used a cross channel ferry or Eurotunnel to reach or leave Kent; are waiting within Kent for departure to mainland Europe; are driving a commercial vehicle operated from an operating centre in Kent and whose journey has been disrupted.

The 30-day relaxation is only applicable at times when Operation Stack is in place, but is not available for other commercial vehicle drivers in Kent and is not available for international journeys that do not pass through Kent.  DfT further reserves the right to withdraw or suspend the relaxation earlier if circumstances change.

In welcoming DfT’s announcement, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) stated that its makes “perfect sense” to help those caught up in Operation Stack in Kent, and help clear out of Kent trucks which have already made the crossing.

FTA, which had called for the temporary relaxation, further described the move as a “pragmatic approach to one part of a difficult situation,” and added that “it will hopefully allow freight operators to keep businesses supplied and the wheels of the economy turning.”

James Firth, FTA Head of Road Freight and Enforcement Policy, said: “FTA is pleased that the DfT has recognised that Operation Stack is affecting domestic businesses in Kent as well as those on international journeys.  The temporary relaxation of their driving hours will give those drivers delayed because of the situation in Calais extra time to complete jobs and get vehicles back to base, or on to a safe resting point on their journey.”

“This is a proportionate response by the Government to just one aspect amongst many which have arisen as a result of the problems in Calais.  Critically this relaxation means that drivers who have spent many hours queuing on one side of the Channel are not forced to immediately find somewhere safe and secure to park as soon as they have crossed.”

FTA also stressed that, irrespective of this relaxation professional, vocational drivers have a duty to avoid driving whilst tired and, as the notice emphasises “employers remain responsible for the safety of their employees and other road users.”

While also welcoming a degree of relaxation of enforcement under the current circumstances, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) expressed its concern that the extent of the measure goes too far, stating that “it will be welcomed by neither responsible haulage companies nor their drivers.”

In agreeing that drivers should not drive whilst tired, the RHA offered the opinion that the extension of the driving day to 11 hours on its own would have been proportionate and welcome.  However it is concerned that the extension of the driving day plus the curtailment of the daily rest period is ill-judged and likely to lead to the exploitation of hauliers and their drivers and a reduction in road safety.

The Association is further concerned by a lack of detail regarding the announcement and will seek a statement of re-assurance that the relaxation will be respected in practice by enforcement across Europe, without which hauliers run the risk of substantial fines.

It also outlined that it is puzzled by the enforceability of the provision regarding vehicles distributing in Kent and by the qualification that the vehicle must have its operating centre in the county.  RHA is further puzzled by the DfT’s statement that, “as a general rule we expect business to plan for and manage the risks of disruption to supply chains.”

RHA also considers that this initial relaxation of enforcement for one month appears to be an admission of defeat in the face of migrant intimidation.  It has again called on the authorities to act decisively now to restore order to the Calais area, so that drivers no longer face intimidation, violence and the prospect of long driving days and short nights in a desperate attempt to cover for the failings of the authorities.

The Unite union also joined the debate and stressed that relaxing the drivers’ hours laws is not the answer as drivers and the travelling public would be put at risk.  It offered the opinion that the temporary measures will increase the chance of road accidents and will not address the problems the industry and drivers encounter on a routine basis with the Channel ports.

Unite has also urged the government and the industry to work with the union on longer-term, viable solutions.  It has called on the government to step up its efforts to reach a solution with the French government on improving security.  It has also appealed to employers to delay sending any further trucks to the affected ports until the Channel routes are clear, and to use alternative routes in the meantime.

Adrian Jones, Unite’s National Officer for Road Transport, said: “Road haulage is already an extremely demanding and stressful job.  Drivers need to have their wits about them at all times.  Recent events have shone a media spotlight on the sort of pressures drivers encounter daily.  They are under are immense pressure and not just on the road.”

“The only safeguard that they have against exhaustion is the working time regulations which demand that they take adequate rests before getting onto the road.  Relaxing these rules is a dangerous move.  There are very good reasons for these regulations, which are about driver and public safety.  This is dreadful situation for all those at the centre of it, but reducing protections for people at work only makes matters worse.

“If the government is concerned to support the industry during this tough time, which we would hope it is, we would strongly urge it to look at other means – and not to compromise on road safety.  We would happily sit down with ministers and employers to work out a more sensible way to address the concerns before us as an industry.”