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Navigating a public inquiry following a bridge strike and the key questions raised by the Traffic Commissioner in the aftermath of such an event.

Let's start with some troubling statistics:

  • every day across the county, an average of five bridges are hit by HGVs
  • 90% of these are railway bridges
  • in the four weeks up to 5 March 2019 alone, there were 96 strikes
  • in 2018 there were 1,303 cancelled train journeys as a result of bridge strikes.

These are of course astonishing figures. It is no surprise at all that, in recent years, Network Rail and the Office of the Traffic Commissioner have been cracking down hard on operators whose vehicles have been involved in bridge strikes. 

The negative consequences of one of your vehicles hitting a bridge can be enormous. They include:

  • a risk of death or serious injury to drivers and other road users
  • reputational damage from negative media publicity and photographs
  • litigation arising from delayed rail services, damaged vehicles and loads, and costs of repair
  • prosecution for careless/dangerous driving
  • a referral to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner for a public inquiry or preliminary hearing.

The Traffic Commissioner can, and frequently will, revoke operator licenses and disqualify directors and drivers for failing to have effective systems and procedures in place to prevent bridge strikes occurring. Hearings of this kind should be treated with the utmost seriousness and legal representation is always essential.

Key questions following a bridge strike

If you find yourself called to a public inquiry or preliminary hearing following a bridge strike or are asked to provide an explanation in writing, there are a number of questions you should be urgently asking:

  • What bridge strike prevention policies and procedures were in place at the time of the strike? Are these up to date and do they reflect the latest best practice guidance from Network Rail, the DVSA and the Office of the Traffic Commissioner?
  • Did the driver receive appropriate training on the company’s bridge strike prevention policies and procedures? Can this be evidenced? In our experience, a disproportionate number of strikes involve temporary or agency drivers unfamiliar with the company’s procedures.
  • Was the driver provided with suitable equipment to allow them to measure the height of their load and avoid low bridges? You should certainly find out whether the driver was using an HGV-specific satnav or their own satnav, and whether the vehicle height was clearly displayed in the cab.
  • What steps were taken immediately following the incident? Were the police and Network Rail informed? Was a full report made to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner and was legal advice taken? What level of investigation has been carried out?
  • How was the driver’s route planned on the day of the incident? Was this planned by the company or left to the driver? Was the driver following an unplanned diversion, and if so, had this been reported to the company?
  • Was the driver under any time pressure on the day of the strike? If so, where did this pressure come from? The Commissioner will want to consider whether a driver was placed under undue pressure; for example, to complete a certain number of deliveries within a fixed time.
  • Was a special or unusual load being carried? If so, was this load risk-assessed and height properly measured?

All of these questions will be asked by the Traffic Commissioner after a bridge strike is reported.

At Weightmans, our transport regulatory team routinely represent operator licence holders called to public inquiries and preliminary hearings following a bridge strike. We also advise operators on how to respond to requests for information from the Traffic Commissioner’s Office.

Prevention is, however, always better than cure. We deliver board-level advice on all aspects of transport risk reduction, with a focus on identifying and mitigating risks to your business. This includes risks arising from:

  • bridge strikes
  • load security
  • financial standing requirements
  • maintenance requirements
  • driver management.

Our transport and logistics experts are always pleased to have an initial, confidential and no-obligation discussion regarding any of these matters.