United by safety, divided by rates
Reflections on road transport’s changing attitudes to safety, compliance and conflict as seen through drivers’ eyes
Tamara Whitsed reflects on road transport’s changing attitudes to safety, compliance and conflict over the past quarter of a century
The trucking industry was under intense scrutiny in 1992. A tragic truck and bus crash at Grafton in 1989 had killed 21 people and caused a public outcry.
Governments were determined to rein in the cowboy element of the industry amid revelations of illicit use of ephedrine and widespread disregard for fatigue regulations.
Looking back, driver Barry Grimson says the public’s concerns were warranted, but the industry has changed a lot since then.
“I probably owe the reason that I’m still behind the wheel to the changes made,” says Grimson, 74, who drives interstate for Unanderra Tanker Hire.
Grimson was driving for Comet Overnight in the early 1990s. In the past 25 years he has seen regulations tighten and fines increase. He has adjusted his driving accordingly and, in 2014, ATA NSW awarded him the NSW Professional Driver of the Year Award.
He believes required breaks reduce the pressure of the job and says this has probably extended his career. But he adds today’s fatigue regulations are “too rigid” and wishes the Australian Trucking Association ( ATA) and Transport Workers Union ( TWU) would get their “shiny arses into gear” to fix them.
Grimson hasn’t always relied on the TWU and associations to lobby for change. He was one of five instigators of the 1979 Razorback Blockade.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
After the Grafton tragedy, industry associations braced themselves, expecting governments to respond with harsh regulations. That’s why, late in 1989, representatives from leading trucking associations formed the Road Transport Industry Forum ( RTIF) to present a united voice for trucking operators.
In 1992, the RTIF changed its name to the Road Transport Forum (RTF), became incorporated and launched its Mobile Safety Information Trailer.
Now known as the Australian Trucking Association, the organisation has been the industry peak body during a period which has seen roads opened up to B-doubles and other high-productivity combinations, tightening of fatigue regulations, introduction of chain of responsibility (COR) legislation, and establishment of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR).
When a government rolls up its sleeves to thump the trucking industry, the ATA steps into the melee to negotiate a fairer deal for operators.
An early achievement was introducing the ATA’s own voluntary accreditation scheme, TruckSafe. The ATA believed self-regulation would win respect from politicians and increase their lobbying clout. Today, TruckSafe comprises five modules (six for livestock transporters).
Another compliance scheme, the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme
(NHVAS), has been available since 1999. This is now managed by the NHVR. Accredited operators are likely to have an office wall filled with folders labelled ‘Mass Management’, ‘Maintenance’, ‘TruckSafe’ and ‘Fatigue’. And they probably increased office staff to stay on top of compliance.
Transport offices are more computerised than in 1992, and accounting practices altered in 2000 to accommodate the GST. Fleet owners love software which can show every truck in the fleet at a glance. Drivers are less excited about being tracked every inch of the journey.
Not all drivers have been happy to embrace change. There have been recurring themes: work diaries make drivers rest when they are alert and drive when they are tired; politicians don’t understand the realities of trucking; it’s hard to find healthy food on the highway; car drivers need to learn how to share the road with trucks; and there is a special place in hell reserved for caravanners. And then there is the issue that has been festering for decades – rates.
In 2012, the Federal Labor Government established the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) which determined minimum pay rates for contract truck drivers. But the Coalition Government abolished the tribunal and its Road Safety Remuneration Order (RSRO) in 2016.
Owner-driver Frank Black supported the RSRT and says he was “dumbfounded” when
“To me you go back to the age-old complaint in the industry, and that is the drivers being put under pressure”
sectors of the transport industry protested against it. Black represented owner-drivers on the ATA general council from 2003 to 2009 and again from 2011 until early 2017. He is also a member of the TWU, which was the RSRT’s most vocal supporter.
The ATA normally steers clear of industrial relations issues, and Black believes the association should have remained impartial in this RSRT debate. “They shouldn’t have protested against it,” he says, referring to the 2016 Convoy to Canberra.
Black says the ATA was “unbiased” when it was first established, “but I think in the last 10 years or so it’s a very biased organisation, and it’s biased towards employers and employer groups”. He was driving a Mercedes 1418 in 1992. Today he drives a Freightliner Century Class and says better trucks and roads have made the industry safer over the past 25 years.
But trucking still has its dangers. “To me, you go back to the age-old complaint in the industry, and that is the drivers being put under pressure.” He says COR “needs to be followed up more, and a lot more heads in companies need to roll because they are still finding ways around it”.
Victorian livestock carrier John Beer, who opposed the RSRT, replaced Black as the ATA owner- driver representative at the 2017 election. Beer says he is conscious of the influence “big operators” have on the ATA. But he says there are a few other
Below: Barry ‘Sleepy’ Grimson remembers when drivers could carry two log books, have a beer with lunch and blockade the Hume Highway. But the 74-year-old interstate driver says the industry has changed for the better
Above: The 2016 Convoy to Canberra protesting against the RSRT
Left: Rod Hannifey is an honorary member of the National Road Freighters Association. Photo: Steve Skinner
Opposite top to bottom: Brisbane 2008 and ALDODA’s attempted national shutdown included protest convoys; John Beer is the new ATA owner-driver representative; Frank Black (left) receives the inaugural TWU National Council Award from TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon at the union’s 2012 national council dinner