Their mission is to rid the roads of dangerously decrepit vans, even if the priority right now seems to be keeping warm.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police and vehicle examiners from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) are taking part in Operation Augury, a joint mission to enforce laws on vehicle maintenance.
Sergeant Martin Epps is the policeman in charge of weeding out rogue vehicles today.
He says: ‘What we do is a combination of enforcement and education. We run an Augury on this scale once a month from each traffic unit and we work in partnership with VOSA, so it’s a multi-agency approach to dealing with defective vehicles on the road.’
As the time of enforcement approaches, three police officers on motorcycles begin a patrol of the area. Their job is to look out for any suspicious looking vehicles that could be defective and direct them towards the layby.
Epps is prepared for anything. He says: ‘I would expect the whole range, everything from loose wheel nuts or bald tyres to major safety defects on vehicles. We have in the past come across vehicles that had propshafts about to detach themselves.
‘There was a flatbed Transit with the flat bed only held on to the van by its own weight. One driver last week had over 200 offences in one stop.’
Operation Augury has been running for several years, but in the wake of the London bombings has taken on additional counter-terrorism aspects. Epps says: ‘We have all got a responsibility to work towards the commissioner’s objectives on counter-terrorism. We are here to try to stop criminal use of the road, whatever it may be.’
But as well as catching those flaunting the law, the operation is also about education of those operating van fleets, whether small or large. Epps says: ‘We’re trying to get across to these operators that vehicle maintenance is very important.
‘We’re in the business of road safety and we take vehicle defects very seriously. It affects everybody. The consequences of using badly maintained vehicles on the road are horrendous.
‘In the event of a fatal collision where we find on inspection of the vehicle defects that led to it, in my experience the driver is always prosecuted.
‘The message to fleet operators is that they need to raise their game. If it’s a cost cutting exercise, in my view it’s a false economy.
‘If a driver is stopped it’s going to be inconvenient for him and grossly inconvenient for the operator, who’s going to lose money.’
Court fines for an offence can run to thousands of pounds. Following an offence, VOSA will follow up the operating company to make sure it is complying with regulations. Failure to do so can result in even more trouble.
At the layby, the first vehicles are being waved in, and Epps explains the standard procedure.
‘When the vehicle comes in, it will be examined by a VOSA vehicle examiner,’ he says.
‘They will speak to the driver. We’ve also got our own vehicle examiners who can step in if VOSA gets overloaded.
‘We’ll have one officer who will take the details of every driver that we stop. We’re going to check he has the appropriate licence to drive the vehicle on the road. We’ll check on the police national computer and check that they’re licensed, and we do find drivers that are not. We’ve found disqualified drivers who have been arrested and also people who are wanted for other crimes.’
As he talks, a small queue of traffic is forming at the layby, as drivers wait to be inspected.
This is no mere kick of the tyres – the inspectors get down and dirty, hauling themselves under the vehicles to check brakes, anti-roll bars, propshafts and any other essential components they can get to. Lights and tyres also get the once over, as do tachographs where relevant.
Most of the vehicles stopped during my visit are found to be OK, or have minor breaches. In these cases the drivers are told to get things sorted straight away, but for more serious faults, the vehicle is not going anywhere.
Worst offender of the day is a G-registration Ford Transit box van, which staggers into the layby. Even a cursory inspection reveals serious problems.
As inspectors open the bonnet, it becomes apparent that newspaper has been stuffed into gaping rust holes in a feeble attempt to keep it together.
A VOSA examiner beckons and points underneath the van. A huge crack in the chassis is immediately evident, with large areas of metalwork rusted away completely.
Epps remarks: ‘There’s no way that would pass an MoT and it seems likely that it’s been like that for some time. It’s not going anywhere.’
The driver says he works for a family greengrocer and maintains that the vehicle was MoT’d a few months back.
Epps looks incredulous. He says: ‘This is one of the worst I’ve seen. The amount of rust in structural parts of the vehicle is awful.’
The driver, who now faces prosecution and a fine, has his and his vehicle’s details entered into a database from a PC in VOSA’s van, as are all the other vehicles stopped during the operation.
Traffic examiner Stewart Balmer reckons some of the most common culprits are drivers of overloaded vans. He says: ‘They seem to think there’s so much space there that they can fill it up, but that’s not the case.
‘If you are going to use any type of vehicle, fill it up with diesel and then get it weighed. That will then give you a good idea of the payload of the vehicle and how much weight you can put into it.
‘If you overload any vehicle, the consequences can include a serious effect on the brakes, steering and suspension of the vehicle.’
The main problem, Balmer says, is a lack of education.
‘They are not being taught the right way to check things,’ he says. ‘If they were to check lights, tyres, indicators and brakes, we wouldn’t have such a problem.’
Epps says it is difficult to assess whether problems with faulty vehicles have improved over time. He says: ‘The volume of vehicles has got bigger – there’s definitely more on the road.
‘We’re doing more of this than we ever have done and as a result of that we’re dealing with more cases. From my own experience it’s more or less the same, no better or worse. But if you focus on it the figures will report that there’s more of it. We’re now much better at doing this than when I came into traffic eight years ago.
We’re more intelligence-led and we’re better at targeting defects. We no longer take an ad-hoc approach. It acts as a reassurance to the public that we’re on the street doing this and that’s important, especially in the current post-7/7 climate.’
After four hours, the operation draws to a close and the officers and examiners begin packing up.
Epps describes the day as a fairly typical Augury road check. He says: ‘We’ve stopped a number of vehicles and given out in the region of half a dozen prohibitions for various defects, ranging from loose nuts and bolts to really serious structural defects on that Transit. We’ve achieved our objective. We’ll continue to target the road operators, challenge poor maintenance and deal with defective vehicles as and when we find them.’