Whatever their personal opinion of the traffic commissioners (TCs), most operators would agree they collectively perform a vital role in keeping the public and industry safe from rogue operators.

But one commissioner in particular, Beverley Bell, was among the first to attempt to change the way the TCs are portrayed, and as she prepares to step down from her role and hand over to East of England TC Richard Turfitt, has helped shape the way the transport industry is regulated.

Back when Bell was appointed TC for the North West in 2000, the TCs were generally regarded as, in her own words, “male, pale and stale”.

“They were usually drawn from retirees from the arme

d forces, and when they appointed myself and [former senior TC] Philip Brown back in 2000, that was a really different approach,” she told CM. “[We were] younger people who weren’t looking at this as a few years before retirement, and that’s continued with people like Joan Aitken, Richard Turfitt and Sarah Bell.”

“I think our profile has changed tremendously and will continue to change. I think that’s a really good thing,” she added.

Into the industry

A former criminal defence solicitor, Bell got into the industry by prosecuting on behalf of the Vehicle Inspectorate [which in turn became Vosa and then the DVSA]. However, she became a TC at a time where the job was antiquated compared with the role of today.

“Everything was on paper. Everything was long submissions,” she said. “Nobody went into a traffic commissioner’s office, but I said ‘my door’s open’. It was all very formal, and the traffic commissioners were not seen as being approachable people. I worked hard to develop that.”

Bell will step down as North West TC and senior TC on 31 May, with deputy TC Simon Evans taking on the role of North West TC.

Bell has fond memories of her tenure, describing being a TC as “the best job in the world”. But she admitted TCs require a thick skin, particularly when dealing with the most non-compliant in the industry.

CILT President Beverely Bell

Beverley Bell was president of CILT in 2015-16

She added: “I love going into the public inquiry room and putting operators on the road to compliance.

“You don’t take this job to make friends, but I’ve made many along the way. However, you also make enemies. It’s only when you take tough decisions that you learn who respects you and who doesn’t, and who respects the regime.”

Respect is something Bell said must be earned, which is why new TCs are encouraged to visit operators to find out what their issues are and learn about what it is like to operate in a challenging industry.

She said: “I did my CPC when I became a traffic commissioner. I didn’t just do the course, I sat the exam. It was scary because I thought failure was not an option. If a traffic commissioner fails the CPC – what a headline!”

She set out to see whether the transport manager CPC course equipped her to be a transport manager. She said that while it provided enough insight into the construction and use regulations and how abnormal loads should be transported, the course did not go far enough to prepare her to operate commercial vehicles.

“You don’t take this job to make friends, but I’ve made many along the way. However, you also make enemies."

“For me, education is one of the most important roles of the traffic commissioners, and that’s why we go out to more seminars than we used to in the past,” she said.

The senior TC position, however, is different to that of a regional TC. The senior TC tends to be the mouthpiece for all of the TCs, which Bell explained can sometimes be challenging as the issues in Scotland or Wales can be very different from the issues in London.

“A criticism that’s levelled against us is that we’re not consistent. The reality is, the cases are dealt with on their own merits.”

The good times

She explained that her biggest achievement was revamping the senior TC’s statutory documents, which provide guidelines to the TCs on how they should deal with various issues. She explained that all operators should read them to ensure they are aware of the consequences of breaking the rules, particularly the documents on transport managers and driver conduct.

She told MT she has never been afraid to tell the DVSA or the DfT how she feels about a particular issue, which she believes has helped strengthen the TCs’ relationship with both organisations.

Beverley Bell

Beverley Bell in 2012, the year she became senior TC

“I gave evidence before the transport select committee and told them how it was, not what I thought they wanted to hear, because I don’t have a political agenda. When things were not good between the DVSA and traffic commissioners, I found it appropriate to tell them.

“But having said that, the current position is that we have a good working relationship with the DVSA since [chief executive] Gareth Llewelyn came along. He’s keen on enforcement, and that’s something the TCs are all committed to. Without effective enforcement, we can’t regulate, and it’s good we’re working together on that,” she added.

While Bell will miss the public inquiry work, she said it is sometimes difficult dealing with drivers and operators who commit serious offences.

“It’s difficult dealing with drivers. It’s hard because when drivers commit offences they don’t set out that morning with the intention of committing them. They generally do it because something’s gone wrong in their lives, whether it’s drunk driving, or whether it’s mobile phone abuse.

“They’ll often be having some sort of crisis so they'll think, ‘Oh, I’ll just answer the phone’, and then they have to pay the penalties, either to the criminal courts or by appearing before TCs. Lots of them don’t know what the implications are.”

She said drivers committing hours offences can sometimes be “between a rock and a hard place”, and she encouraged operators to make sure they are not placing undue pressure on drivers to satisfy customer requirements.

She said the most satisfying part of being a TC is getting non-compliant operators out of the industry and stopping them from unfairly competing with those getting it right.

A criticism that’s levelled against us is that we’re not consistent. The reality is, the cases are dealt with on their own merits.

“But we’ve got to remember we only deal with a tiny number of operators,” Bell added. “The majority, again, quietly get on. We’re doing a great job for British industry at getting it right.”

Eye for detail

She said that for the most part operators appear before the TC because an event or illness within the business has caused a distraction and led to a temporary breakdown in systems for vehicle maintenance or drivers’ hours compliance.

“It could be that the transport manager has been promoted beyond their ability. It could be that the transport manager has gone off sick and nobody has been doing their job. It could be that the systems and procedures haven’t been working. What we do is we provide a set of external eyes, if you like, and look at it, so often we’re giving the solution to operators.”

TrafficCommissionersMay 20

Beverley Bell and the traffic comissioners

She added: “I have an eye for detail. When operators are manufacturing their records, they will forget that the mileage is going backwards. It’s not difficult to see where documents are forged.”

The TCs often see businesses that have expanded too quickly and have let standards slip because they are keen on satisfying customers. Bell said the answer can sometimes be as simple as ensuring preventative maintenance inspection intervals are not exceeded or making sure drivers are aware of how important the hours rules are.

The difference in the level of compliance between restricted and standard O-licence holders is a major issue for the TCs at the moment, and Bell stressed that all truck operators need to get it right, regardless of the type of O-licence they hold.

“The difficulty is that a restricted licence holder doesn’t have a transport manager, which seems to me to not be quite right. They might make bread or steel, and they’re very good at making bread or fabricating steel, but they’re asking, ‘how do we do this?’ when it comes to trucks,” she added.

The future

Another thing Bell is keen to see changed is the current flat-rate O-licence fee, which she challenged in her annual report last year. She is concerned that sole traders or small haulage firms that provide very little work for the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) licensing staff are not getting the value for money they deserve, while large operators give the OTC huge amounts of administrative work, despite paying the same rate for their O-licence.

“The industry has made it clear through the trade associations that they would prefer to pay a higher fee for better service, because, quite frankly, you get what you pay for,” Bell said.

“When you look at our fees, I think they are not fair. I think they should be distributed more evenly so those causing us the greatest work pay more, so that they get a better service, so that instead of it being nine weeks for a licence, it’s six weeks, or even better, three or four.”