Fears that a shortage of truck drivers means there will be no Christmas pudding on the supermarket shelves, or that presents bought online will be delivered late?
And an opportunity to blame Brussels?
No wonder several UK newspapers did not hold back.
“Shortage of truck drivers caused by EU rules puts economic recovery at risk…” fulminated the Daily Mail. “Christmas deliveries put at risk by EU” thundered The Times.
“Buy Christmas gifts now, we’re short on lorry drivers, shoppers told” and “Shoppers warned to buy Christmas presents early “ said the Evening Standard and the Mirror rather more calmly.
And more recently the Sunday Times shifted gear from gifts to worries about festive food, with “EU ruling gobbles up Christmas dinner”.
Caught in the headlights are European rules (under Directive 2003/59) setting common minimum standards – the Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) – for all professional HGV drivers in Europe and requiring periodic training of 35 hours every five years, or one day a year, to keep knowledge and skills up to date.
The aim is to make the roads safer for all users and to ensure that safe and well-trained drivers cannot be undercut by those less competent and well-qualified.
The requirements mean that HGV drivers from elsewhere in Europe, as well as non-EU drivers operating on UK roads, will have to obtain and maintain the same minimum standards as UK truck drivers.
It is of course, not unusual for operators in charge of large and dangerous machinery to be subject to ongoing training requirements.
Because the training covers fuel economy – as well as safety issues and defensive driving (i.e. anticipating danger) – it should also allow cost savings for hauliers and reduce unnecessary emissions.
So the UK not only supported the rules, it decided to apply them in full two years before the September 2016 deadline agreed by all Member States.
As UK Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin – by no means an unconditional fan of the EU – put it: ‘If you’re driving a motor vehicle, with the investment you’ve got in that motor vehicle, it’s no bad thing to know what you’re doing.’
The shortage of lorry drivers is genuine.
But some might instinctively think it unlikely that huge numbers of drivers would react so negatively to being required to undertake refresher training that they would completely walk away from their job rather than grumble and go ahead.
The evidence backs that view. In fact, a series of difficult issues have been affecting the industry and making recruitment difficult for many years.
The Freight Transport Association (the FTA) says: “Sadly, not enough young people are considering driving as a career option. There are several reasons for this, including: the cost of licence acquisition, lack of understanding of the sector, poor sector image, driver medical requirements and low quality driver facilities.”
The concern over driver shortages was a prominent issue in the Report of the High-Level Group on the Development of the EU Road Haulage Market of June 2012: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/road/doc/2012-06-high-level-group-report-final-report.pdf.
As that report makes clear, it has been forecast for years that the age profile of the profession would lead to a large number of retirements in the current period.
So it is, to put it mildly, extremely far-fetched to claim, as the Times does, that “a course made compulsory by the EU, taking 35 hours and costing £300 per driver, had depleted the drivers available by up to 60,000.”
The new rules, by seeking to raise the status of the profession, in fact aim to address one of the very problems which have led to the shortage of young drivers to replace those retiring.
We aim to be more balanced than many newspaper reports. So we should mention that the FTA does add “The impact of the driver shortage is also being exacerbated by other factors, including the implementation of the Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC), which appears to be acting as the trigger for some older drivers to retire early.”
So the FTA referred to the issue as “another factor” in the driver shortage. A debate about whether a potential effect on driver numbers is a price worth paying for increased professionalism and greater safety is obviously legitimate.
But some media chose to leave their readers with the impression the CPC was the leading or only reason for the dearth of drivers.
Most also failed to explain properly the rationale behind the new rules, the potential benefits or the fact the UK is implementing them early. Neither did they refer to the likelihood that the explosion in online shopping would of itself create delivery challenges.
The Commission is in contact with haulage employers, trade unions and other stakeholders to explore how to encourage more young people to become lorry drivers.