Lorry driver sentenced but spotlight needed on operators

Lorries are involved in 18% of cyclists' deaths per year in Great Britain
If ever there was a case that demonstrated the need to impose immediate interim driving bans on drivers that kill cyclists, this is it. CTC's Road Safety Campaigner Rhia Weston examines the evidence.

The 32-year-old lorry driver who caused the deaths of two cyclists on the A30 in July 2013 was sentenced this week to seven and a half years for each death, to be served concurrently.

Robert Wayne Palmer also received a one-year sentence for a dangerous driving offence he committed ten weeks after the incident on the A30 whilst he was on bail. A driver was left with minor injuries following this crash, which, in remarkable similarity to the first, involved Palmer ploughing his lorry into the back of another road user. If ever there was a case that demonstrated the need to impose immediate interim driving bans on drivers that kill, this is it.

Palmer’s sentence included a ten-year driving ban, which is considerably longer than the majority of bans for causing death and bodily harm offences, which fall between one and three years. However, a lifetime driving ban would have been more appropriate for someone who had demonstrated on multiple occasions complete disregard for the law. 

In 2013, only five drivers were given a ban of ten years or more for causing death or bodily harm by driving, with only one driver being banned for life. 

CTC’s Road Justice campaign has long been calling for more and longer driving bans to be emphasised in sentencing guidelines.

Dangerous driving

It became evident, whilst the judge was passing sentence that Palmer had been driving on severely insufficient sleep and had used a mobile phone repeatedly whilst at the wheel the day before the crash, at one time to send a text saying “worked til 3pm, had about three hours’ kip. Now back on Lidl run”.

It transpired that in the days leading up the crash, Palmer had been making night time deliveries and working day-shifts in the yard. He lied about this to the police after the crash.

His lack of sleep had a significant impact on his driving – witnesses saw him driving erratically, weaving across the dual carriageway and over the rumble strips. The police found that although he was within the speed limit when he crashed into McMenigall and Wallace, he had previously driven at 62mph in a 40mph zone.

Palmer demonstrated complete disregard for the safety of himself or other road users. A prison sentence is entirely warranted as well as the lengthy ban, although the victims’ families may not be satisfied that Palmer will only have to serve the sentences he received for each death concurrently rather than consecutively. 

Operator responsibility

However, by focusing too closely on Palmer’s atrocious behaviour, we risk deflecting the responsibility of the operating company he worked for in ensuring its drivers are safe and fit to drive. A light must be shone on this company and its complicity in this tragic story.

The company Palmer worked for – Frys Logistics – gained an operating licence in July 2011 after a wait of 14 months from the original application, during which two public inquiries were scheduled by the regulator of HGV licensing to review the company's fitness to operate. 

CTC staff following this case sensed something unusual about the 14 month delay - a routine operator licence application is normally processed within 28 days. They were right to be concerned - at the same time that Frys Logistics made their application, the Commissioner revoked the licence of Arthur Charles Fry (AC Fry Transport) operating from the same address as that used for Frys Logistics' application, for various offences arising from the operation of his HGVs. 

One of the unusual conditions for the granting of the Frys Logistics licence (which originally proposed to have A C Fry as their Transport Manager) was that A C Fry would have absolutely no involvement with the operation of the company.

Just a month after the fatal crash, Frys Logistics applied for a change of operating base, which was approved a few months later.

In January 2015, Frys Logistics appeared at a public inquiry relating to the fatal collision in July 2013 where they were formally warned concerning offences covered by s.26 of the Goods Vehicle Operators Act (this covers drivers’ hours and maintenance issues), but no action was taken by the Traffic Commissioner to revoke the operating licence.

Mark Fry, the Operations and Transport Manager of the company, was prosecuted by the Driving Vehicles Standards Agency (DVSA) in June 2015 for offences relating to his own driving. He was fined, but his management of the company wasn't called into question. 

There needs to be much greater transparency about operators' practices so companies can choose firms that are reputable and safe and so victims can hold them to account if an incident does occur. The Government could bring about this transparency by publicising Operator Compliance Risk Scores"

Rhia Weston
CTC Road Safety Campaigner

When a road collision involving a lorry is reported in the news, rarely is the operator mentioned and scant print space is given to it when the operator is named. This must change, so that operators with slack safety practices are held to account when the drivers they employ cause road crashes.

Simply naming and shaming the company whose goods were being transported and whose livery is on the trucks does not go far enough though, as large firms often outsource their transport to smaller logistics companies. This does not mean that large companies are off the hook - these companies should have procurement policies that ensure only reputable operators are contracted and should keep a close eye on their supply chains to ensure these policies are adhered to.

Operator Compliance Risk Score

Finding out whether an operator is reputable would be easy if the Operator Compliance Risk Score (OCRS) was made public. The OCRS is used to calculate the risk of an operator not following the rules on road-worthiness (i.e. vehicle condition) and traffic (e.g. drivers’ hours and weighing checks). It is used by the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) to decide which vehicles to stop for road-side inspections.   

CTC, along with several other road safety organisations (RoadPeace, the London Cycling Campaign, the See Me Save Me campaign, Living Streets, and British Cycling) wrote a joint letter to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport earlier this year to express support for making OCRS datasets public.

Many large operators are supportive of publicising the datasets as they are already compliant. The challenge is raising the standards of smaller operators, like the one who employed Palmer.