Secret deal to end fuel crisis

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The Independent Online

Secret changes to safety regulations to allow truck driver to remain at the wheel longer each day were made at the height of the fuel crisis in a bid to bring it to an end, it was revealed last night.

Secret changes to safety regulations to allow truck driver to remain at the wheel longer each day were made at the height of the fuel crisis in a bid to bring it to an end, it was revealed last night.

The move was introduced by the Government as the fuel crisis reached its peak on Wednesday of last week. It involves the suspension for a month of European regulations covering driving hours and will allow lorry drivers, delivering fuel and goods to supermarkets, to stay at the wheel for up to 70 hours a week for the next month.

The revelation came hours after unions claimed to have evidence that oil companies allowed protesters the "free run" of refineries and petrol depots during the fuel crisis.

Hauliers, unions and road safety campaigners condemned the increase in driver hours, pointing out that only last month the government launched a nationwide campaign to cut down on driver fatigue. One in five deaths on the road is due to driver fatigue, with an estimated 1,000 deaths a year caused by lorry drivers falling asleep.

Mary Williams of Brake, which campaigns for road safety, said: "Relaxing the rules like this is showing total disregard for road safety. The last person who should be asked to work extra hours and take a risk with falling asleep is the driver of a petrol tanker. It puts lives at risk and is grossly irresponsible."

"The EU hours rules are maximum times anyway. To relax them is inviting an accident to happen."

The rule change is aimed at drivers of petrol tankers but it will apply to all haulage firms, including companies delivering chemicals. A memo from the Road Haulage Association, the hauliers' trade association informed lorry firms of the change. It said: "The Government has decided to relax certain requirements of the EU drivers hours rules in connection with the present disruption to oil and fuel supplies. The 45 hour weekly rest requirement is also relaxed, which means a driver can drive seven days a week 10 hours per day as laid down in the UK Domestic rules."

European rules force truckers to take regular breaks and drive a maximum of 90 hours per fortnight. But the emergency powers allow truckers to drive seventy hours per week without the need for a rest after 45 hours of driving. Last night a leading haulier said that the move "placed the lives of tanker drivers at risk and also the general public".

Paul Newton, Director of Horley Motors Ltd, Ipswich and a member of the East Anglian Hauliers Group, said: "A tanker driver is the most high risk with 30,000 to 50,000 litres of petrol in their tank. The effects of falling asleep at the wheel could be catastrophic."

The Tories condemned the changes to the drivers' hours regulations. Bernard Jenkin, the shadow transport spokesman, said: "The Government's relaxation of rules on drivers' hours is yet another indication of their total panic and chaos."

A Government spokesman defended the relaxation in driving limits and said he believed it would not be taken advantage of by lorry companies.

But one of the government's key advisers on the effects of fatigue on driving, Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research centre at Loughborough University, urged truckers to use extreme caution in applying the revised rules.

A spokesman for the GMB union said that the union was "very concerned about the relaxation of safety safeguards.'

The Government last night stopped short of forcing oil companies to deliver fuel. But a Downing Street spokesman said that plans to change to law to put oil companies on the same footing as gas, electricity and water companies were still on track.

At a meeting of an emergency taskforce chaired by Jack Straw, composed of ministers, police chiefs and oil company executives, agreed to draw up plans to ensure that fuel is delivered. Working groups composed of civil servants will draw up a strategy for dealing with future protests and plans for a memorandum of understanding between the government and the fuel companies will be draw up between the second meeting of the taskforce on Friday.

As fuel supplies around the country continued to return to normal, the Health Secretary Alan Milburn stood down the National Health Service from the state of "red alert".

The police reported that up to three-quarters of filling stations were now receiving fuel.