Trucking an easy target
Politicians, policy makers, authorities and public have little idea about the diversity within road transport
I’M GOING to start this column with an apology because I’m still harping on about electronic work diaries (EWDs) and everything else that needs fixing. I guess a few owner-drivers and operators might be keen on voluntary EWDs but, to be honest, the rest of us will keep going as we are. That is until the next big collision where I think we’ll see every sort of technology and tracking imposed very quickly.
Let me be clear, I don’t want to see more of the tragedy of what happened earlier this year, but I think it’s inevitable that when loss of life happens, the media and others will put pressure on government to get heavy handed on trucks – and the public will agree. It won’t really matter about the circumstances or fault because we’re a big, easy target.
The more miles I do, the more I’m reminded that the industry seems to be operating at a couple of levels, and those levels aren’t really on the same wavelength. Some might say they’re even fighting against each other.
We’ve got operators, owner-drivers and employed drivers out there doing the job every day. They face endless challenges every single day – drive safely, get the goods to where they’re going, get there in time, don’t mess up the logbook, organise tomorrow’s job or work, grab a feed and a shower, refuel, hit the road again, make sure the truck is maintained or still right to go. Never mind check in with the family or think about what needs doing at home or deal with the bills or paperwork … the list goes on.
Plus we’ve got what I’ve been known to call the shiny-arse level and everyone else. The policy makers, the politicians, the government bodies, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR), the enforcement agencies, big companies, multinationals, consultants, experts – and the media and the public. You know what I mean.
APPLES AND ORANGES
Let’s be honest, the drivers working for big companies have different issues to an owner-driver above and beyond their experiences behind the wheel.
Those of us in rural and livestock are very different to freight truckies running up and down the M1 or the Hume. Compare livestock transport to our counterparts in outback Australia vs Victoria, which is pretty urbanised for the most part.
This makes it hard sometimes to compare apples and oranges but I like to think that most of us agree on a lot of the stuff that matters. And you’ve got one-truck operators like me, small fleets, big fleets, subbies, contractors, family companies and everything in between.
It can be so bloody frustrating trying to explain the realities of driving a heavy vehicle full of cattle into Melbourne to someone who mostly lives in an office and drives a small car or catches the train. As hard as they try, the experts have rarely even sat in a truck, let alone helped load pens of fizzy cows without getting injured themselves making sure the animals get on safely. Nor do they have any idea about navigating them across bouncy, rough, narrow country roads through busy traffic into a facility, getting them off in one piece and without getting injured all over again.
After that, it’s cleaning the truck/trailer and yourself, finding somewhere to get a feed and some fuel and get home before your time’s up, then do it again tomorrow. Never mind an animal activist blockade or a detour or a bingle or broken loading ramps or a cow that won’t walk off for an hour because she’s tired or cranky or a thousand other scenarios added into the mix.
You just can’t expect to say you understand if you don’t drive a truck. Even driving that route in a car tells you nothing about what that truckie experiences. Yet we have policy and law and research telling us what to do and think and change that isn’t coming from those that have to do the job and live and breathe it and live with the consequences of issues that choke the transport sector.
It’s this divide that draws me back to EWDs, and to a number of other issues. Things like heavy vehicle user charging, access permits, driver licensing, tolls and facilities. And I guess fatigue and safety sits next to and above them all. We keep dancing in a circle but we can’t get away from the fact that much of what we need to do our job just isn’t there.
I know of operators who have waited weeks for an access permit then, after some help from the regulator, it was fixed in a day. But you generally need a computer or a smartphone to apply, and allegedly sometimes operators just run hot without one because the reality of getting one before you do the job can still be a problem.
And you need to know who to ring to get this stuff fixed, and what if you don’t? What if you don’t have time to sit on the phone for two hours or longer? Or if you don’t have a smartphone or an office person to do your bookwork and chase it up? That’s the reality.
There are thousands of operators who are a one-man band. Even those with the time have struggled to get them approved. And if the call is that a job is tomorrow (and that’s pretty standard in my game) and a permit takes 48/72 hours, a week, two weeks, what then? In times gone by, the local councils were okay to deal with. We could leave the complicated ones outside our area to the NHVR, but sometimes talking to the local person seems a better option.
So now we’re going to have voluntary EWDs, and the issue of heavy vehicle charging and telematics and safety is also on the agenda.
I don’t think it’s any secret or surprise that heavy vehicle operators have been getting screwed in terms of overcharging for the last 10 years – if not longer. How it’s going to look is the question, but the bigger issue is how are we going to ensure that the overcharging doesn’t continue? Any model has got to reflect road quality and even commodity type, because many of the type of things I move (e.g. livestock) are the ultimate in time-sensitive freight.
There are also dirt roads and tracks and dangerous local roads to contend with. Then there are the roads I use that aren’t even on maps or Google. Never mind where we load from and where we are expected to get them to.
Animal freight makes effluent, so how do we make sure operators can move them and keep roads and vehicles clean and biosecure? Surely road user charging should take into account the costs of clean vehicles and provide for wash bays and effluent dumps? It’s not just stock trucks that need to be cleaned – fertiliser, grain, fuel, chemicals, cement are some examples of freight moved by heavy vehicles and those trailers need to be cleaned properly.
I say the parties that consign loads and consume goods must be brought into road user charging. It doesn’t work to simply incur a cost on the truck owner and hope that they stay viable.
How do roads get built and maintained and infrastructure done properly but also make sure small transport businesses survive? If road user charging gets tied to EWDs and telematics, how do small ownerdrivers fit into that model?
Yes, everyone should pay their way, but transporters have been subsidising a broken system for too long. Can we just keep it simple? Leave it on fuel or gas or electricity for now and reduce our costs? And can we fix some of the problems before we keep looking for the next shiny thing to solve and write reports about?
The tolls we pay are determined often by the time of day we use a freeway. Yet this is rarely, if ever, the choice of the transporter. Nor usually is the route. Yes, we are told to pass on our costs, but the transporter is the vulnerable party in the supply chain. Charge too much? There are plenty of others who’ll undercut to get the work. They might be cowboys and run bad gear but they’re still running around. I hope that changes but it hasn’t yet, despite promises.
“Even driving that route in a car tells you nothing about what that truckie experiences”