Fleet News

Towing for business can mean a legal minefield for fleets

Towing a trailer may seem like an easy way to increase the versatility of your fleet, boosting vehicle carrying capacity and allowing you to carry larger items like mini excavators without a truck. But hitching a trailer to your van or pick-up isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Take the maximum permissible weight above 3.5 tonnes, and you can be walking into a minefield of tachographs, driver’s hours and even operator’s licences.

As most fleet managers know, anyone can drive a van up to 3.5 tonnes Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) on a car licence, without a tachograph. If you want to use a larger van for business use, say a 4.5 tonne vehicle, it will have a tachograph fitted and you will have to comply with EU driver’s hours regulations. Your driver will also need to have a licence that entitles them to drive a vehicle of this weight.

What many people apparently don’t realise, is that if you add a trailer to your 3.5 tonne van, pick-up or even large car, taking the Gross Train Mass (GTM) over 3.5 tonnes, then a tachograph should be fitted when the vehicle is used for business use.

There are a few exclusions to this, for instance no tacho is required for an electric vehicle or one powered by natural or liquefied gas under 7.5 tonnes. Also utilities such as water, gas and electricity are allowed to tow without tachos under the 7.5 tonne GTM limit.

Slightly less clear is a derogation for vehicles that are carrying materials, equipment and machinery for the driver’s use in the course of his own work, where driving the vehicle is not the main activity. This for instance would cover a builder towing a concrete mixer or mini excavator to his own site. It would not cover them however if they then hire that digger out to someone else. Also, this ruling only works within a 50km radius of the company’s base.

“This covers vans, pick-ups and cars, but drivers just don’t understand it,” says Nigel Grainger, senior consultant at Fleet Risk Consultants.

“But we are seeing an increase in prosecutions and enforcement.”

A digital tachograph is the same size as a regular DIN slot radio. Usually connected to the vehicle’s gearbox, the tachograph records the vehicle’s speed, distance travelled and whether the driver was working or resting.

The driver has a smart card that is inserted into a slot in the tacho that can store up to 28 days of activity, the tacho itself will store the previous 365 days of use. The company also has to have a separate smart card to download the information, which must then be stored securely for at least 12 months for possible inspection by the authorities. The tacho provides a printed readout of the information at the end of each day, including the speeds that the vehicle has been travelling at.

All van manufacturers have a tachograph option available. Those firms that make vans above 3.5 tonnes GVW will be fitting a tacho as standard anyway in the heavier vans, so it is fairly easy to make it a cost option on smaller models. Prices vary (see table) but you can expect to pay around £350-500 for a factory-fit tacho on a 3.5 tonne van.
It is worth thinking about this when you specify the van though. Retrofitting a tacho is possible in some cases, but is very expensive as it requires the removal of the gearbox, which is then drilled for the tacho installation.

This can cost well in excess of £1,500, plus the time that the vehicle is off the road.

The difficult one for fleet managers is the 4x4 pick-up, which due to the VAT and tax opportunities available to fleets, became popular a few years ago. Only Isuzu and Land Rover say that they can offer a tachograph-ready vehicle from the dealer, though both require external help to actually fit and calibrate the tacho. Due to the need to call in an outside supplier, neither was able to provide a definitive price for this work.

To combat this problem, tachograph manufacturer VDO launched a unit specifically for 4x4s and pick-ups earlier this year. However to supply, install and calibrate a tacho, VDO will charge around £1,400 plus the VAT.

As always ignorance is no defence, and fleet managers should take the time to find out if they need a tachograph. That is easier said than done however, as the Department for Transport and VOSA will only provide guidelines for you to interpret.

“If you don’t know, you should know,” says Mr Grainger.
“Get in touch with a professional who can give you a definitive answer, VOSA will not provide a definitive answer. We can supply a fleet with the paperwork to carry in the vehicle in case they are stopped, and if necessary defend them in court.”

And it can go to court. The maximum fine is £5,000 and up to two years in prison, so fleet managers should certainly be very sure of where they stand.

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  • robertbranagan3319 - 29/11/2010 13:29

    When does a "large car" become a commercial vehicle? i.e. what are the defining criteria?

  • steven rayton - 19/10/2012 21:47

    i have just purchased a fish and chip trailer and intend towing this to events on an occasional basis the trailer will weigh about 2 tonnes loaded i intend towing this with a transit sized van will i need a tacho and if so will i need an o licence and how do i go about getting this

  • David Green - 21/10/2012 08:25

    Hi, Welcome to tachograph world and to its wonders of obfuscation, vicarious liability, VOSA doublespeak, hair splitting and forensic examintion of records that have been described in parliament as "amounting to an exercise in compulsive obssesive disorder". A thoroughly confused , exasperated and fed up employer.

  • davey thomas - 21/06/2018 01:13

    my wife's car is over 3.5t with the seven seats occupied !

  • Jason Stansfield - 27/10/2018 14:11

    I've recently been pulled over and received a £300 fine. I have a 2.7T rated van which can tow 2T. On the day in question I was due to collect a vehicle using my car transport trailer, the total weight would have been under 3.5T with car. They are not interested in what you are actually doing, just what you might do given the chance! I had no idea I needed a tachograph, yet they have chosen not to give me a warning. This just amounts to a van man tax. I've already raised it with my MP and will be creating a No.10 Government Petition to exempt all van and trailer combinations, where the van is less than 3.5T. It will make it much simpler for everyone and I'll be able to travel out of my region legally.

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