Pass or fail: it’s up to you 05 June 2013

Common sense, attention to detail, and robust contracts and vigilant operators are the keys to improving first-time pass rates, says Robin Dickeson

Nationally, latest data from VOSA (the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency) shows that 75.8% of trucks, 81.6% of buses and 82.7% of trailers passed their annual MOT tests first time in 2012. By comparison, only 50% of vans did so. Superficially, all but the van figures seem quite good, but look at them as failure rates and the results ranges from dismal to dreadful. And importantly, since the 'pass' or 'fail' verdict almost inevitably reflects maintenance standards, the outcome could largely be up to you.

MOT tests aren't simply a matter of passing; vehicles need to pass first time for operators to get the full thumbs up from VOSA. Even more importantly, they need to be capable of passing at any time.
Given that there are over three million vans on UK roads, with some two million more than three years old and subject to MOT tests, over one million are neither safe nor roadworthy at any one time. Why? Van users enjoy a much more relaxed compliance regime than heavy vehicle operators, with a first test at three years, no regular safety checks and no 'O' (operator) licence to lose.

Maybe we need some changes in attitudes to van operation and testing? VOSA boss Alastair Peoples insists that an MOT test is not simply bout giving a vehicle a makeover to ensure that, for one day a year, it is up to scratch. "If your commercial vehicle can't pass an MOT test on every day it's in use, you are breaking the law. Roadworthiness is not just for one day a year."

For transport operators, those MOT results, be they first time passes, PRS (pass with rectification at station) or, worst of all, a fail, are increasingly serious. They all find their way onto your OCRS (operator compliance risk score) with which VOSA targets the 'bad guys' and takes some of the heat off the good ones.

UK franchised truck dealers are now getting average first-time pass (FTP) rates in the "low 90% range," according to John Davies, head of UK service and support for MAN. He also leads the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) commercial vehicle aftermarket group, which works increasingly closely with VOSA to improve truck maintenance and safety standards, and points to the fact that just a couple of years ago those franchised dealers' FTP rates were five or six percentage points lower.
Although the results show that carrots and sticks pay off, Davies and his competitor peers are far from complacent. All aim for 100%. They also calculate that, without their dealers' consistently good performance now, the national average FTP rate for trucks might be 10% worse.

Davies believes the high pass rates rely on little more than common sense and consistent attention to detail. "Too many people put off rectification work until just before an MOT," he advises. And he makes the point that workshops need time to check and prepare any vehicle. "For instance, it's better to check brakes early, so that if they need new disc pads there is time for them to bed in before the test."

That said, overall the pass rate trend is moving in the right direction and is likely to continue to do so, as dealers "obsess over FTP rates," according to Ian Chisholm, head of operations and communications at the IRTE (Institute of Road Transport Engineers). All aim to avoid damage to their customers' OCRS and any consequent black marks on their 'O' licences. However, Chisholm feels that operators can help themselves by being more careful when doing third party maintenance deals.

"It's important to know that the right people in the right workshops are doing the work," he says – adding that the IRTE's workshop and technician accreditation schemes define standards that "deserve wider recognition." Beyond these though, Chisholm, like many others, wonders how many operators bother to look at the extensive MOT data available from VOSA – or, for that matter, at its Testers Manuals.

At a recent conference on vehicle maintenance, VOSA's next generation testing director Alex Fiddes was challenged over what the agency itself is doing to improve FTP rates. Ducking that, he said more recently: "Operators can motivate their maintainers by having a contract in place that rewards good first-time pass rates or even one that punishes poor performance."
And despite the widely held view among operators that VOSA could do more, trade associations and others all agree that some operators should be acting smarter. Andy Mair, head of engineering at the FTA (Freight Transport Association), point to problems that are still common, despite all the publicity.

Headlamp aim is still the contentious prime cause of truck and bus MOT failures, he agrees, but too many technicians simply set them near the top or bottom of the tolerance band. "Set the beam in the middle of the band and you're less likely to get affected by the suspension system movements and more likely to pass," he explains.

Brakes, too, are a common problem for truck and trailer operators alike. So, along the same lines, setting or adjusting brakes to just 1% above the minimum is asking for trouble. "Brake performance will only go one way. It makes much more sense to adjust for the maximum performance you can get, rather than just enough to scrape through a test," advises Mair.
Pro-Cut sells specialist on-wheel lathes capable of easily reconditioning vehicle brake discs. UK managing director Peter Spraggs says that common sense and attention to detail are what matters. Specifically, his engineers always recommend people to check the freedom of calliper movement on disc brakes and look for corrosion, seizing etc in the units themselves. "Also, check the air pressure as well as the brake adjustment," he suggests. Trailers that spend a lot of time parked up are particularly vulnerable to brake problems.

So what next? Annual MOT tests are already way more complex and searching than when they were introduced and there is every reason to expect that they will become more so. So passing those tests first time and properly maintaining vehicles between tests will be increasingly important and demanding. The 90%-plus FTP rate from franchised truck dealers shows that success is possible, but there is no magic in this. Again, it's all about consistent attention to detail and common sense.

What about VOSA? The trade associations are generous about the agency's pragmatic approach. The organisation clearly listens and tries to help where and whenever it can, they say. But there are still some concerns about inconsistency between some of VOSA's test stations and its examiners. Many ij the industry agree that VOSA should now concentrate on enforcement, letting its increasingly successful ATF (Authorised Testing Facility) initiative run its course to the natural conclusion, fully privatising all commercial vehicle MOT testing.

And those one million unsafe and unroadworthy vans? Expect VOSA to act, working with trade associations and those van operators that take their responsibilities seriously. The aim will be to find ways of spreading best practice to the firms that run the million or more failures. April's new registration figures from the SMMT show that the nation's van fleet is growing faster than any other vehicle group. So the pressure for action can only go one way.

Robin Dickeson

Related Downloads

Related Companies
Bullwell Trailer Solutions
Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA)
Freight Transport Association Ltd
MAN Truck & Bus UK Ltd
Society of Operations Engineers

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