There is growing confusion among car dealers as to whether or not they are allowed to offer test drives during the third lockdown.
Conflicting information from motor trade legal experts has been issued – with one firm stating car dealers can offer test drives and another saying they wouldn’t advise it.
Trading Standards have not responded to a request for comment from Car Dealer and the Department for Transport simply restated the national restrictions that state car dealers ‘must be closed’ when approached.
Both departments were asked specifically if car dealers are allowed to offer test drives during the third lockdown and neither was able to provide an answer.
A call placed to the National Consumer Helpline also appeared to suggest officials enforcing the rules are baffled too.
When asked if car dealers can or cannot offer test drives, the call handler only offered to ‘report the offending dealer’ to Trading Standards.
Asked what they would be reporting them for, they merely added that they were ‘not allowed to comment’ on whether car dealers can offer test drives and ‘can only report cases for investigation by officers’.
Confusion deepened among dealers after it was spotted Cargurus is currently advertising more than 8,000 cars for ‘free test drive at home’ as part of its ‘Contactless Services’ during the lockdown.
The site says consumers can try a ‘no-commitment, free test drive at home’ with cars dropped off within 25 miles of dealers so buyers can ‘safely test drive it’ on their own.
Cargurus said in a statement that dealers can opt in or out of offering the service and it was up to them to decide what they offered customers.
Daksh Gupta, CEO of Marshall Motor Group, said his group is not offering test drives and does not feel it’s the right thing to do either.
He said: ‘We have not offered test drives since lockdown 3 was announced, our showrooms are closed and the only transactions we are doing is via click and collect services.
‘In my view, a test drive is pre a commitment to purchase therefore we are not doing them.
‘I appreciate retailers are resourceful and entrepreneurial but offering test drives is pushing the boundaries in my view and is something we would not do.
‘I will not put my colleagues at risk for an extra car sale – to me lives and reputation are far more important.’
Lawgistics solicitor Nona Bowkis believes car dealers are within their rights to offer test drives under the lockdown and argues the rules are a ‘grey area’ that some may want to push.
She said there is ‘nothing in the law’ that bans test drives and warned against mistaking government guidance with law.
She added: ‘The law says dealers can carry on business from premises separate to the closed business and by “making deliveries or otherwise providing services” in response to orders received online or by phone.
‘Therefore, if someone wants a test drive either from outside the dealer’s premises or at their home, that can be considered as part of dealers providing a service, particularly as a test drive is part and parcel of buying a car.
‘However, the enquiry must come remotely and cannot be in response to someone turning up at the normal premises to view random or multiple vehicles.’
Bowkis did add that dealers should seek ‘tailored advice’ if they were still unsure.
However, Stacey Turner, a solicitor for CG Professionals, does not think dealers should be offering test drives.
She told Car Dealer: ‘While I accept that the legislation is open to interpretation, my view is that the terminology “orders received” relates to a completed order, not any part of the sales process, like a test drive.
‘While an order placed online or over the phone would unofficially qualify for a 14-day test drive under distance selling rules, the point being here is that this would be following completion of the order and taking delivery of the vehicle.’
Turner pointed out that dealers have been told they must ‘cease to carry on business’ and fears that local Trading Standards officers will interrupt the rules differently and come down hard on those that offer test drives.
Robert Forrester, CEO of Vertu Motors said dealers need to watch out for fines from Trading Standards officers.
He told Car Dealer: ‘It is quite clear to us that going to a test drive or facilitating a home test drive is not in the spirit of the regulations or indeed in any way an essential journey.
‘We are therefore not doing any test drives at present. We do know that Trading Standards are policing this and know of at least one UK group who has been fined in this area.
‘Poking a stick at the regulations is in my view less than wise. The vast majority of retailers are doing the right thing and making good levels of sales. Our aim should be to support the government and work with them to fully open the sector as quickly as possible.’
CarGurus told Car Dealer its contactless services can be turned off listings at any time by the dealer.
A spokesperson told Car Dealer: ‘Our contactless services offering gives dealers the flexibility to opt-in or opt-out of a menu of services they are able to provide for buyers.
‘We are encouraging our dealers to keep their contactless services as up to date as possible on our site. Dealers can remove the “test drive at home” service or any other advertised contactless service from their vehicle detail pages by contacting their representative.
‘They will be able to opt back in once they are able to provide that service again.’
Car Dealer recently reported that Trading Standards were clamping down heavily on car dealers and mystery shopping to check they were not breaching the rules.
Some dealers have closed completely and are not even offering click and collect as they say it simply ‘doesn’t feel right’. Pebley Beach in Swindon is one dealer that has openly talked about stopping offering click and collect.
Lawgistics Bowkis added: ‘I think this all depends on whether dealers want to strictly follow the guidance which says click and collect or click and deliver only, or want to use the lack of clarity in the actual law to offer test drives.
‘Some high street retailers, such as John Lewis, took the decision to temporarily stop offering click and collect from closed business premises in response to the increased rate of spread from the new variant.
‘That goes further than both the guidance and the law and is a commercial decision for the business who will have moral and PR angles to consider.
‘As the infection rates continue to come down, I think more businesses will feel comfortable offering test drives on vehicles which have been pre-ordered as that is not specifically outlawed.’