The trucking industry and related players have turned on the usual approach to policing and compliance
The trucking industry and related players have turned on the usual approach to policing and compliance
S omething approaching a revolt has exercised minds this year amongst elements of Australia’s trucking fraternity in relation to New South Wales policing, regulation and on-road operations.
There is a sense that traditional methods of publicity and enforcement used by the NSW Police and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS), accepted as par for the course for years, may not pass without scrutiny and questioning any more.
The catalyst for the this pushback built a proper head of steam through the lean news month of January, starting with publicity over a spike in truck-related fatalities last year and generating more intense heat due to multiple deaths mid-month.
An industry that had witnessed the annual national Operation Austrans morph into a double-header for the first time last year was already engaged in the trucking safety debate for almost four weeks before NSW authorities unleashed Operation Rolling Thunder to a mainstream and industry media already warmed to the task.
And the public had been made aware that NSW roads minister Melinda Pavey was advocating electric shocks for drowsy truck drivers, in a turn of phrase that smothered a reasonable point about in-cab fatigue detection and response technology. THE BLITZ Headline-grabbing statements worked as intended, with blanket media coverage bolstered by facts on the road.
The day-long blitz, coordinated by NSW Police, involved the RMS and the Victorian, Queensland, ACT, and South Australian police forces, in what was described as “Australia’s largest ever heavy vehicle compliance operation”.
The operation began at 6am, “in direct response” to events on January 15-16, when three unrelated heavy vehicle crashes in NSW, at Jackadgery, Cooranbong and Brocklehurst, resulted in five deaths.
NSW Police, consisting of more than 300 highway patrol and general duties officers from metropolitan and regional areas, alongside 150 RMS inspectors, conducted heavy vehicle inspections around major NSW entry points, at checking stations and at 14 locations in the Sydney area. Roving crews on major highways were also operating.
The other states’ forces had simultaneous operations “to ensure all heavy vehicles entering and leaving NSW are stopped, thoroughly inspected, and drivers tested for drugs and alcohol”.
The commander of NSW Police Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, assistant commissioner Michael Corboy, said at the time the operation presents
an opportunity for police and other agencies to work together to ensure the entire trucking industry is operating safely.
“We simply cannot stand by and accept that dangerous trucks are on our roads and are causing people to die,” Corboy says.
“NSW carries the bulk of the nation’s freight and we need to ensure that all of the trucks coming and going from the state are safe and compliant, and that truck drivers are not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Today’s operation will test the entire heavy vehicle industry in NSW and across other states. We will review results from the operation and stop any trucks, drivers, owners or operators who can’t comply with safety standards and road rules, to ensure all dangerous trucks are removed from our roads.”
RMS director of compliance Roger Weeks was also on hand to emphasise that this was one of the largest operations jointly conducted by RMS and NSW Police.
“Last year, more than half a million heavy vehicle units were inspected and we will continue to work closely with NSW Police to target and remove unsafe vehicles from NSW roads,” Weeks continues. “NSW has the most comprehensive heavy vehicle safety and compliance system in the country, and heavy vehicle drivers who ignore the law risk losing their licence and incurring heavy fines.”
In a police video statement, Corboy revealed planning for Operation Rolling Thunder and liaison with other state police forces began on the day of the second high-profile crash.
“The reputable heavy vehicle companies have nothing to fear from this operation,” Corboy says. “We look at the . . . drivers, we look at the quality of the trucks, and the roadworthiness of the trucks, and we also look at the systems involved – fatigue management and load management and all the other things that go into a reputable company.”
For Weeks, the focus is fatigue, speed, roadworthiness, and drug and alcohol testing – and underlined what has become a regular message.
“For those cowboy truckies, for those dishonest companies, for those parties in the supply chain who are placing unreasonable demands on the trucking industry, you’re in our sights,” he says.
“For those reputable trucking companies, for those professional truck drivers who do the right thing on our roads every day, you have nothing to worry about.
“This morning, already, we have inspected 500 trucks. We’ve found two major defects, we’ve found seven overloaded trucks. This is not a good start to the day.
“NSW has the most comprehensive heavy vehicle safety and compliance system in the country”
“But, pleasingly, we have also found trucks that are fully compliant and are safe.”
Weeks also emphasised a safety message to the wider community to take extra care around trucks due to the differing dynamics between trucks and cars.
He says feedback from reputable operators and professional drivers is “they want the ratbag element out of the industry”. He revealed that RMS issued directions to ground 29 drivers because of “critical fatigue breaches” in January alone.
“That is unacceptable behaviour by the driver, by the company, and by anyone else in the supply chain that is placing unreasonable pressure on the truckies.
“The worst thing we have seen is the critical fatigue of a driver intercepted near Jones Island up near Taree. This driver was almost asleep at the wheel.
“Our inspectors were unable to interview him effectively because he was continuously drooping his head, slurring his words. We called the police and they escorted that driver to a motel.”
But, despite the platitudes about chasing the bad elements, the industry reaction this time was anything but docile.
Representative bodies often seen to be in step with governments cut to the chase, with early resistance coming from the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) and the National Road Transport Association (NatRoad), energetically supported by the South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA). The message was clear: authorities and governments continue to be more focused on the symptoms of the problem than tackling the causes.
ATA chair Geoff Crouch had already restated the ATA’s call for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to have its remit extended to include major truck accidents, along with calling for $4.3 million to be spent federally over four years on a national database of coronial recommendations about road safety and of serious truck accidents.
But, with the heat on and simplistic and uniformed media commentary abounding, Crouch sought to turn the heat back on government with practical advice.
“In 2017, the number of deaths in NSW from crashes involving articulated trucks like semi-trailers increased dramatically, but we know that most of the increase in deaths was in multi-vehicle crashes,” he says. “About 80 per cent
of fatal multi-vehicle crashes involving trucks are not the fault of the truck driver.
“Truck compliance operations cannot possibly prevent these crashes, so governments need to take a broader, long-term approach to safety as well as supporting police blitzes.”
NatRoad’s take was harsher and sought a wider context.
“The road toll is not going to be reduced in a context of blaming the truck industry in isolation for the regrettable deaths that occur on Australia’s roads,” NatRoad CEO Warren Clark says. “In fact, the statistics show that, in collisions involving fatalities, the truck was not at fault on 93 per cent of occasions. The statistics also show that, in an analysis of truck crash incidents, mechanical failures were inconsequential with a 3.5 per cent incident level. In that context, tyre failure accounted for 52 per cent of losses attributed to a mechanical fault.
“NatRoad is very concerned about the recent spike in serious truck accidents in NSW. We have not seen this spike in other states, which are subject to the same heavy vehicle safety standards and fatigue management rules, so we must find out whether the problem is unique to NSW. Objective and concerted investigation of the recent incidents is essential.
“We offer our co-operation to the police but short-term solutions based on blaming the industry are not going to assist a long-term problem. Enhanced drug and alcohol testing of light vehicles should go hand-in-hand with increased enforcement of the law relating to the heavy vehicle industry. It is the behaviour of other drivers around heavy vehicles that requires attention, a matter that is best solved through education – especially at the stage of getting a licence to drive.
“We also need to invest more in accident investigation to find out why incidents in NSW are increasing compared with other states and territories.
“It is time for all authorities to fully support the new chain of responsibility laws that will come into force this year, laws which spread the responsibility for controlling on-road risk to other parties in the supply chain. These laws will do exactly what is required – take the heat off the driver and place responsibility for controlling risk with the party best able to take that step.”
But perhaps the most pointed criticism about the whole strategy was laid by SARTA on social media. High on the list of SARTA’s complaints was the highlighting of 26 positive drugs returns of 1752 drivers tested.
“Drugs: 26 out of 1752 tested returned positive tests. So that is 1.4 per cent,” the post reads. “That’s right, 98.6 per cent were drug FREE!
“The general motoring community would NEVER return a result as good as that and the police damned well know it – but they don’t mention that trucking is almost drug-free and far more responsible than motorists. Sure, any truck driver testing positive to drugs is one too many, but for goodness sake, keep it in perspective.”
It argues that politicians and the authorities should consider “applauding the industry on this point but saying that the remaining tiny minority using drugs needs to be eradicated” but questions if this would undermine any PR gains from the effort.
SARTA also took a swipe at the use of defect numbers and the lack of a breakdown of them.
“Some 2000 defects issued from over 5000 trucks inspected,” the post reads.
“The public, the media and, most concerning, the ill-informed politicians, will all get totally sucked in by that because it sounds like 40 per cent of trucks are unsafe.”
SARTA also questioned the basis on which the defects were identified.
“What standard did the police apply in Operation Rolling PR Blunder? Was it the government-approved and official national
HeavyVehicle Inspection Manual (HVIM) that the NHVR spent so much money on developing in consultation with police and industry before rolling it out and advising the industry that the HVIM is THE BIBLE and should be used by all officers and industry to manage roadworthiness? No, of course it wasn’t, because police don’t consider themselves bound to the NHVIM,” the post reads.
“So unless, and until, the people behind Operation Rolling Thunder get serious about working WITH the industry to improve safety continually, the necessary actual safety improvements required amongst the small minority who are actually unsafe JUST WONT HAPPEN.”
ELKINS WEIGHS IN
And the NSW Police also copped fire from a former ally in the form of one-time NHVR safety director Daniel Elkins, who engaged in an exchange with chief inspector and stakeholder relations manager Phillip Brooks on the LinkedIn page of high-profile truck safety campaigner Rod Hannifey.
Elkins, who is pursuing consultancy since leaving the NHVR last year, also tackled the issue on his own LinkedIn page
“The question I have asked is that evidence be provided that this operation
and operations like it demonstrate their effectiveness in providing a positive impact on road safety,” Elkins says.
“This has not been delivered in any of the responses to my articles.
“In addition, my credibility is being questioned because an alternate view as to how to improve road safety has been proposed. The focus of the NSW Police response in relation to my articles is misguided and the question stands and remains unanswered.”
Brooks put up a stern defence, though it stuck to the earlier NSW Police script on the size of the operation and the numbers of deaths. However, he did say: “If you can give me another enforcement and compliance strategy that gives an indication of the ‘state of the fleet’ I’ll certainly use it.”
THE AGEING FLEET
Meanwhile, the Truck Industry Council (TIC) took advantage of increased scrutiny of truck safety to renew its call for a younger national fleet.
One of the few voices consistently calling for action over the increasing average age of the nation’s trucking fleet, the TIC backed early January comments from Toll MD Michael Byrne calling on the federal government to incentivise Australian truck operators to invest in newer, safer and more-sustainable vehicles.
Byrne’s comments had been triggered by debate around the truck deaths spike in NSW last year of 86 per cent, with road fatalities rising from 29 to 54 last year.
Phil Taylor, TIC president and chief operating officer of Isuzu Trucks in Australia, expressed his dismay at the results and called for the government to prioritise in the 2018/19 federal Budget the modernisation of Australia’s truck fleet.
“Increasing the take-up rate of today’s more-advanced trucks means everyone benefits from our roads being populated with safer fleets,” Taylor says.
“Having been around trucks and the Australian road transport industry since the late seventies, I can verify that significant improvements have been made in regard to truck and road safety.
“We must push towards zero deaths on our roads, truck related or otherwise, and, as an industry collective, we must believe we can achieve that.”
In 2017, the average age of the Australian truck fleet was 14.9 years and, with the national freight task continually expanding, this figure is set to rise.
The TIC has consistently called on government for genuine support in helping operators upgrade their fleets to a morerobust safety standard. It notes 42 per cent of the nation’s truck fleet was manufactured before 2003, meaning that these trucks are missing many of the safety technologies that come as standard on a truck sold in 2017.
“The choice is not whether Australia uses trucks – they’re essential to our standard of living – the choice is whether we have the most modern fleets possible,” Taylor says.
“Australia can have safer trucks on the road, or we can continue with an older fleet.
“TIC believes the implementation of an incentivised system, which rewards safe and modern fleets, is the most proactive and cost-effective mechanism for lowering Australia’s road toll.
“We must act now. This is about creating a safe, productive and robust road transport industry, but, most importantly, it’s about ensuring that no more Australian families are torn apart by largely preventable road crashes and fatalities.”
Judging by the following response from federal infrastructure minister Barnaby Joyce, while sympathetic to the idea, the federal governments is loath to push it.
“The Government supports reducing the average age of the trucking fleet, as a younger fleet can improve safety and environmental outcomes,” a spokesperson for the minister tells ATN. “Previous research by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics shows that financial incentives are far more likely to benefit larger fleet operators, which already turn over their fleets more often.
“The same research also found little evidence this approach would lead to older vehicles being taken out of service.
“Improving heavy vehicle safety requires a multi-pronged approach, with measures such as chain of responsibility improvements to the national law, infrastructure investment, and targeted funding toward specific initiatives far more likely to improve safety.
“The Government is improving new heavy vehicle safety through the introduction of technologies, such as electronic stability control and anti-lock braking systems, through the Australian
DesignRules. We are also providing more than $15 million for a range of heavy vehicle safety initiatives.”
Above: RMS director of compliance Roger Weeks and NSW Police assistant commissioner Michael Corboy
Left: NSW roads minister Melinda Pavey
Opposite: SARTA executive director Steve Shearer
Right: ATA chair Geoff Crouch
Below: Federal infrastructure minister Barnaby Joyce