The predictions are that one-in-five Brits could be affected by coronavirus and off work at any one time, leaving depots short of drivers and potentially leaving fleet managers with no choice but to put drivers in vehicles and on routes they do not usually drive. Such unfamiliarity with surroundings, or a differential in height between the vehicle being driven and the usual lorry assigned to a driver could have dramatic consequences.
According to Network Rail, 43% of lorry drivers admit to not measuring their vehicle before driving it and 53% do not take low bridges along a route into account.
“The onus lies on both the driver, who should check on the height of their vehicle, and the office-based route planners, who should steer their fleet drivers away from routes with low bridges or make drivers aware of any hazards along a new route,” says Gauntlet’s health and safety expert, Andrew Scott. “Drivers should be reminded to look out for triangular or circular warning signs, which signal that a low bridge lies ahead, especially as not all satnav systems flag these up.
“Drivers who suddenly find themselves following a diversion, should also be aware that the police do not take low bridges into account when setting a diversion up. If they encounter an enforced change of route, they should try to ring their office and check whether a low bridge ahead could present an issue.”
The reasons for the warning are manifold. Network Rail has won a landmark case that allows it to claim back the full cost of a bridge repair. On average, this is £13,000. Network Rail is entitled to claim for the examination, repair and inspection of the bridge, repairs to the surrounding road surfaces and the cost of train delays. Other costs incurred by a fleet could relate to recovery of a vehicle and any third-party costs. A driver could lose their licence or incur penalty points.
There is also the very real possibility of injury or loss of life. A bridge strike in Swansea in December 2019 left eight injured, including an Olympian. Two of these suffered serious injuries and a third had to be air-lifted to hospital, being in a life-threatening situation.
The Traffic Commissioner is said to be staggered by the lack of effort operators make to avoid such bridge strikes – with the cost to the British taxpayer being £23m a year. The likelihood is that actions will be taken to crack down on such incidents.
“Haulage operators need to be vigilant, should coronavirus lead to changes of personnel driving unfamiliar vehicles,” says Andrew Scott. “Hitting a bridge can literally slice the top off of a lorry, leaving drivers and the public at huge risk of being hit by metal and glass, or of losing their lives. Less serious consequences may occur, according to the relative heights of vehicle and the bridge clearance room available but hit and run incidents will be severely punished.
“Any driver hitting a bridge must use the contact details given on the bridge’s identification plate and report the strike to the relevant authorities, before they even think of calling their transport manager. Train derailment is a real possibility following such strikes, so drivers need to take responsibility and make their mistake known. Whilst we normally ask drivers involved in an accident to contact their transport managers or notify the claim as soon as possible, in this type of incident, reporting to the authorities takes precedence.”
A useful low bridge map can be found at https://www.truckingjobs.co.uk/2018/10/low-bridge-map-uk.html