Trailer hire companies not liable for customers’ traffic offences – court

Trailer hire companies are clearly fed up with the mountain of traffic tickets accumulated by customers parking illegally, ignoring red lights and otherwise breaking the laws of the road.

For years, the police have been pinning the blame on trailer hire companies for offences committed by customers. This has created all sorts of difficulties: arrest warrants have been issued against the trailer owners, and traffic authorities have refused to issue renewal licences for their trailers or to renew drivers’ licences until all outstanding fines have been paid.


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All of this came to a head earlier this month in the Supreme Court of Appeal when the minister of transport went head-to-head with Brackenfell Trailer Hire over the government’s interpretation of the National Road Traffic Act (NRTA). The act presumes the owner of an offending vehicle is also the driver in a case where the actual driver cannot be identified.

Brackenfell, which has 3 000 trailers for hire, originally argued before the Cape High Court that it could not be held responsible for the misbehaviour of customers, and the court agreed.

The minister of transport’s legal counsel argued that a trailer fell under the definition of ‘motor vehicle’ in the NRTA, which meant traffic authorities were within their rights to hold the trailer owner liable for offences.

Not a ‘motor vehicle’

“It is as well to remember that a ‘trailer’ is defined as a vehicle which is not self-propelled but rather designed or adapted to be drawn by a motor vehicle,” says the judgment.

Between the Cape High Court and the Supreme Court, there was much discussion about the dictionary and legal definitions of words like ‘drive’, ‘vehicle’ and ‘tow’.

Traffic authorities rely increasingly on surveillance cameras which often capture only the trailer number plate, not the towing vehicle. This left Brakenfell Trailer Hire and two other respondents to pick up the tab, and deal with the arrest warrants, for offences committed by customers.

“In those circumstances, the prosecuting authorities in whose area of jurisdiction the traffic offences concerned were committed, institute criminal proceedings against the owner of the vehicle whose registration number is depicted on the photograph, in this instance the trailer that is in tow,” reads the Supreme Court judgment.

Redirect process easier said than done

The Criminal Procedure Act allows for a ‘redirect process’ where the recipient of a traffic notice can provide prosecuting authorities with the particulars of the person driving the vehicle, but this is an imperfect system that often results in injustice.

Brackenfell and the other respondents were confronted with numerous arrest warrants for offences committed by customers. The impact of this was compounded by the fact that licensing authorities imposed an embargo against them renewing their drivers’ and motor vehicle licences.

The minister argued that trailer owners could use the redirect process in cases where a third party driver committed an offence. Where a trailer number plate obscures the plate of the towing vehicle, the trailer owner is the primary target for prosecution.

The Supreme Court dismissed the minister’s appeal against the earlier Cape High Court ruling, with costs.