Fail safe 08 June 2012

MOT failure rates are continuing to fall amid pressure to reduce vehicle downtime, and servicing and maintenance costs, while also bearing down on OCRS scores. Keith Read discovers how fleet managers are making the difference

OCRS: four letters that, depending where you stand, you either love or loathe. But Operator Compliance Risk Scores are with us for very good reasons. Whether you're responsible for the maintenance and roadworthiness of trucks, or – like VOSA (the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency) – for policing that roadworthiness, the objective is to avoid accidents that can be costly in terms of human suffering and commercial losses.

VOSA points out that OCRS is a mechanism used ahead of roadside checks to "calculate the likelihood of an operator being non-compliant". But the risk-based scoring system is a guide, not simply a mechanism for rating operators, the agency insists.

Having said that, there clearly is an element of rating operators within OCRS, in that the system helps roadside examiners to select what might be considered the 'most appropriate' vehicles for inspection. But while that (theoretically, at least) means those fleets with low scores are less likely to be inconvenienced, it's by no means guaranteed. How else could VOSA catch the trucks carefully prepared for annual MoT test, and with apparently unblemished records, but, subsequently, allowed on the road with potentially dangerous defects?

All of which prompts Ian Ashman, systems manager at Lichfield-based Bullwell Trailer Solutions – which has invested £173,000 in an on-site ATF (authorised testing facility) – to offer common sense advice. "The best way to ensure a good first-time pass rate is to keep your HGVs serviced to the test standards throughout the year.
That way, any problems will be addressed at the right time, and when it comes to the MoT there will be no need for panic preparation."

Ashman also says statistics suggest that nine out of 10 vehicle failures are due to braking performance figures not being met. His solution is, again, proactive fleet management, which flags-up the need for a brake reline well before the MoT test. That brings the clear benefit of allowing new brakes to be fully bedded-in, so making them far less likely to cause a failure.

That said, our Bullwell Trailer man won't recommend products capable of revolutionising MoT pass rates or cutting compliance scores. "At the end of the day, you can't cheat the MoT test," he states. "Your vehicle has to be of a high enough standard to pass – and rightly so. Otherwise we'd have unsafe and potentially life-threatening HGVs on the road."

Ashman's advice is consistent: keep your vehicles serviced to a high standard throughout the year. "If fleet operators adopt this mindset, the first-time pass rate will continue to rise among HGVs across the country... Our pass rate currently stands at 93.5% and our aim is to get this closer to 100% by year end," he adds.

And one additional important point: while many operators contract their vehicle maintenance – and annual testing – to companies such as Bullwell, that doesn't mean the buck for getting a good OCRS is also contracted out. Ian Marsh, one of the VOSA team answering queries at this year's CV Show in Birmingham, says agency staff routinely warn O-licence holders: you can contract-out your maintenance, but you can't contract-out your responsibility, Hence the value of the IRTE (Institute of Road Transport Engineers) and FTA (Freight Transport Association) accredited workshops scheme, launched at the CV Show, which provides operators with a database of independently assessed workshops, judged to be meeting the desired standards.

Light relief?
While the demands of the MoT test for LCVs may not as challenging as those for HGVs – no test for the first three years and no OCRS to worry about – the obligation on fleet managers and owner-operators to ensure that vans are roadworthy remains paramount. Not only can a failure keep the vehicle off the road for longer than necessary, but there is also a possibility that whatever caused the failure could have posed a danger to the driver and other road users, with serious consequences had it contributed to an accident and/or injury and subsequent prosecution.

Furthermore, implementation of a new EU testing directive from January this year means items that could have been left un-fixed last year without fear of a failure – such as a faulty warning light or headlight washer system – are now being checked. If they are found faulty, the result will initially be a warning, during what's being termed the 'bedding-in' period. However, in the future, such faults will lead to a failure. And, be warned, not all the new mandatory MoT test items benefit from the bedding-in period of grace. Items such as a damaged or chafed fuel line will get the van failed immediately.

Vanessa Guyll, technical specialist at the AA, says the new additions to the test are likely to become reasons for a failure, not just a warning, by this summer, although no date has yet been published for the end of the bedding-in period. However, changes to the way existing test items are assessed took effect in January.

According to Guyll, some of the most basic faults lead to the majority of failures, particularly among LCVs. "A light bulb not working is one of the biggest causes of failure. Yet, it's so easy to walk round the vehicle before its test and check that these things are working. It's common sense as much as anything, and is something that should be done anyway as a matter of routine to ensure that the vehicle is roadworthy," she advises.

Confirmation of her assessment can be found in the statistics that VOSA released a little over a year ago, following pressure through Freedom of Information Act requests. The file is huge – 1,200 pages of data – and not readily downloaded or interpreted. However, a simplified version ( shows that lighting faults are, indeed, a major cause of failures.

For example, of the 18,237 Ford Transits first used in 2004, some 6,520 failed the first MoT test and 6,412 of those were failed because of lighting or indicator faults. In some cases there were other faults as well – but you get the point. Taking the same year, of the 1,180 Mercedes Sprinters tested, 551 failed, with lighting faults cited.

How long would it have taken to check all the lights before sending the vehicles to test stations? And how much longer were they off the road, with the resultant inconvenience, as a result of failing?

The voice of VOSA
Alan Wilson, VOSA's head of testing schemes management, knows exactly what operators need to do to achieve first-time passes and a low OCRS. "Know the content of the inspection manual and keep your knowledge up to date," he advises. "The easiest way is to sign-up to VOSA Direct at Unless you know the standards you're being assessed against, you're always going to struggle to get a first-time pass.

"Truck testing is little different to many other aspects of life – proper planning prevents poor performance," he adds. In this case, the biggest single failure item is still headlamp aim, where lamps are too high or too low. "If vehicles had been properly prepared, they should be at the same level," Wilson points out. For the record, VOSA's advice is to adjust headlights to the middle of the band rather than the edge of the limit.

A proper system of preventative maintenance is vital – not just to keep vehicles safe, but to satisfy the commitments you have given to your Traffic Commissioner, continues Wilson. "Don't leave your preparation to the last minute. Rushed maintenance or repairs can very often introduce as many defects as you've tried to cure. If you've re-lined the brakes, make sure you have time to bed them in and re-adjust if appropriate. You will get better brake efficiency readings. If you use an ATF, there's also every possibility that defects won't develop on the way to one of the old VOSA sites. If VOSA had £1 for every time a driver said 'It was working when I left the depot Guv', we would be very rich."

In the end, any operator playing fast and loose with the rules risks getting on the wrong side of the OCRS and hence VOSA, he warns. "Everybody's trying to get the most out of precious resources these days. But if operators start to take liberties with the safety of their vehicles, they will attract our attention. That means potential disruption to their business, often involving appearances before the Traffic Commissioners or, in some cases, the Courts, if we choose to mount a prosecution."

Seven point plan
To avoid attracting unwarranted attention from VIOSA and to achieve first-time passes with minimum down-time, Alan Wilson, VOSA's head of testing schemes management, offers operators a seven-point plan:

1 Know the standards

2 Prepare your vehicles to those standards

3 Keep on top of maintenance

4 Employ the best technicians you can or employ a third-party presenter on your behalf, who can demonstrate good first-time pass rates

5 If you have enough vehicles, business or local interest, start up an ATF – the pass rates are higher at ATFs than VOSA premises

6 Respond quickly to driver defect reports to prevent defects from worsening

7 Monitor your business. You should always know more about it than VOSA and be easily capable of answering any awkward VOSA questions

Keith Read

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