Remain Vigilant

Risk Benefit Analysis

Any sane person doing a risk benefit analysis of truck driving would refuse to contemplate the idea without a very high salary on offer. However, there are plenty of people willing and able to drive trucks in some pretty dire conditions for not a lot of pay.

The idea of sticking yourself on the front of 60 plus tonnes of steel flying down a badly maintained highway at 100 km/h, with poorly trained and uncaring motorists all around you, should fill the ordinary person with dread. In fact, the number who are willing to make this lifestyle choice does seem to be dwindling.

With 40 per cent of the driver population over 55, it’s clear the number of young people coming into the industry is falling. There doesn’t seem to be anything about life on the open road, being your own boss and handling big machinery, which attracts the Gen Y and Millennial population.

The pay isn’t very good for the time and inconvenience involved in truck driving, especially interstate. For interstate drivers the relatively high pay may be welcome, but spending the weekends you do get at home trying to catch up on sleep is no fun.

For drivers who get home every night the pay is lower, but the grief is often similar, with days spent fighting to get a large truck through unseeing city traffic on a road system designed for the horse and cart. You can try and paint the industry as something better than this but for many involved in trucking, this is their day-to-day reality.

To make the idea of driving trucks even less of a smart career choice, they have now introduced the idea autonomous trucks will be taking over and there will be no truckie jobs anyway. Why would you choose to get into a career which is going to be obsolete in a few years?

The fact of the matter is the trucking industry is going to need good operators for a long time to come. With a bit of luck all of this automation and fitting of highly sophisticated safety control systems will make the life of those involved in trucking a little less stressful and more rewarding.

All of the automated loading systems in the world are not going to be able to ensure a load on a truck is safe, without a skilled human being getting involved. The risks are too great. Even shipping containers have to be loaded correctly or risk causing dynamic problems at highway speeds.

Then add another factor into the equation. The average age of a truck on Australia’s roads is 14 years. This means, if every truck entering the fleet from now on was autonomous, it would still be 14 years before half of the trucks on the road were driverless.

The real power of driverless control will not begin to kick in until Intelligent Traffic Systems become a reality. Smart roadside infrastructure, speed signs, traffic lights etc. are needed to ensure each ITS enabled vehicle knows where it is and where all of the other vehicles are. On the evidence of infrastructure investment in the past thirty years, full coverage on Aussie roads is going to be a long time coming.

What will this process towards autonomous vehicles give us? Hopefully, we can get some better safety outcomes. If the cars on the highway had some form of autonomy to help avoid accidents the saving will be valuable. Currently, the other vehicle is at fault in 88 per cent of multi vehicle crash incidents involving a truck. Autonomous cars will make truckies in old bangers safer and less likely to be involved in an accident in which the car’s occupants die.

Can we predict the future? No. Are our roads likely to be safer? Yes. Is autonomous control coming?Yes, but not that soon.


Remain Vigilant

Less Change, To Get More Change

Listening to our Federal Minister, Darren Chester, when he departed from his prepared script, talking to the ALC Forum dinner guests in Melbourne, he made a point about needing less change, to get more change. This may be a difficult objective to achieve, but we seem to be heading down the right path, for now.


The point he talks to is well made. The road transport industry has suffered at the hands of our crazy political cycles with state and federal elections seeming to come up just about every other year. This is no way to run a trucking industry and no way to run a country.


There is so much chopping and changing, the kind of major reform needed to enable trucking to function at its best is hard to achieve. To get stuff like the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, sensible road pricing or a National Freight Strategy up we need co-operation between the feds and the states over a long period of time.


These kinds of projects need years of planning and development and then several more years of open water to sail out and get the job done. Only then is their existence taken as given and the kind of improvements we are looking for can flow through.


Looking at the example of the NHVR, there is no minister still in place, who was involved in the inception of the regulator. The teething problems the NHVR went though were, in part, self inflicted but the subtle sabotage from some states created an atmosphere in which it was possible to fail.


Luckily for the trucking industry, those initial issues have been sorted out and the fact the the NHVR exists is taken as given and even the most intransigent of the states are playing along with the process.


We still have to wait for the kind of national consistency and rational enforcement we were promised at the start, but there does seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel. More importantly, major change in Canberra, or any of the state capitals is unlikely to derail the regulator now.


Minister Chester spent some time talking about the churn in Canberra and whether it would disrupt the development of a single National Freight Strategy. In his opinion, if the strategy can get to a point where it has been signed off at both state and federal level, there is a chance it will provide certainty for future investment in trucking as well as form a basis on which infrastructure spending can be targeted to improve the lot of freight transport.


This seems plausible, but we are not near enough to the finishing post to rule out a change in one government somewhere might not knock the whole thing off course.


Even less certain is the route to a new, more rational and fair charging system to replace the rego and fuel excise regime we have at the moment. This is one of those areas where both federal and state players have a stake in the game and territory to defend.


Fine words will not get us far if the political class get into an infighting mood, like they have been in for the past six or so years. As a trucking industry can we afford to sit by and watch another set of good ideas disappear in the meleé, caused by another leadership tussle in Canberra or an unpredictable election result in one of the major states?

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Road Versus Rail

The trucking industry has always had a problematic relationship with the railway industry, or more specifically, the rail freight industry as road versus rail tensions continue. A lot of this is historical, dating back to the time when state governments limited licenses for trucks to carry freight in order to drive business onto the state owned railways.


This kind of restriction on trade lead to massive inefficiencies and high costs. Over the years, the trucking industry has grown fast, as regulation has eased to the point we are now where road transport handles over 80 per cent of the freight task and rail cannot even contest the vast majority of the business, due to the inflexibility of its system.


Much of Australia’s recent economic growth, or a proportion of it, can be put down to the ever increasing productivity of the road transport sector. This is something of which the trucking industry can be proud and should be shouting it from the roof tops. Unfortunately, the rest of Australian society is not interested and not listening, as long as there are Corn Flakes on the supermarket shelves.


The high productivity and competitiveness of road transport has also helped stimulate a radical improvement in productivity in the rail industry. There is also a substantial increase in the level of competition in rail as the state rail companies have morphed into the current line-up of rail operators.


The fierce competition for lucrative rail freight contracts, especially those with the mining industry, has spilled over into the wider community lately. Aurizon lost a contract carting copper from a mine in Mount Isa to Townsville with Glencore. The rail company refused to sell or lease the rolling stock, needed to get the work done, to the new contractor, Pacific National.


Tooling up for these multi-million tonne freight contracts is a major capital expense and rolling stock often changes hands from operator to operator as contracts swap around. This time the relationship has soured and the position is in a deadlock.


What happens as a result? The trucking industry steps in and starts hauling the copper out of the Isa to the port by road. Yet again, the trucking industry demonstrates its quickness on its feet to jump in and save the day and get the job done.


Of course, it does help when we have surplus capacity lying around in paddocks due to the overall mining construction slowdown. Even so, those trailers sitting idle in the Port Hedland area, for example, could be on the job, on the other side of the country in a couple of days. This would not be possible for any rolling stock, due to rail connection and gauge issues.


This one event should bring home the point which needs to be made regularly to and by the trucking industry. We are the major player in the freight industry and, as a consequence, need to be listened to by governments and regulatory bodies.


There needs to be less of this road vs rail business and taking our eye off the ball and more asserting our rightful position at the table as a unified industry. Oh yes, and we can bring our little sibling, rail, along, when the situation demands it.

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Hitting the Right Target

The stats prove we are not talking to the people we need to communicate with, trucking needs to make sure it’s safety message is hitting the right target audience. Actually, it’s not just trucking, there is a need for everyone concerned with safety to reach the demographic, which is the main issue.


Owen Driscoll from NTI and involved its National Truck Accident Research Centre has spent many years going around with a safety message for the trucking industry. In recent years, he has been backing this up with significant numbers from the NTARC.


One message comes out very clearly from his figures and is quoted over and over again in discussions about safety on the road around trucks. The number quoted varies, but is consistently a percentage in the eighties.


The number in question is the percentage of accidents involving a truck and another vehicle in which the other vehicle was deemed to be at fault. From the latest research, this number now stands at 88 per cent. Let’s run that number by you again, 88 per cent.


This tells us quite a lot about what is going on out there on the highway. It tells us one of the biggest safety risks facing any truck driver is someone in one of those light vehicles around them. The truck driver and the safety regime in the company he works for, plus all of the regulatory control of the trucking industry, have absolutely no control over the way the uninformed car driver acts around trucks.


The solution so far has been to prepare the truck and the driver for the worst. They can be trained in all of the best defensive driving techniques, anticipating errant stupidity or a total lack of judgement on the part of the other vehicle driver, but it will not stop these accidents occurring.


Likewise, the truck can be fitted with all of the latest electronic gadgets to increase safety around the truck. Beepers can go off when a car is in the blind spot, an array of cameras can feed the truck driver with a full set of images around the truck and radar can see a stationary vehicle in front and hit the brakes on the truck.


Despite all of this training and safety equipment, we still get the same figure, 88 per cent. In fact it has been slowly creeping up over the years I have been reporting on this subject.


This increase is not a result of trucks becoming more unsafe, in fact, it’s the opposite. It is a result of the drivers of those vehicles in close proximity to the truck not knowing anything about how to react in and around our trucks.


Why don’t they know? Because nobody ever told them. They have been given no information about the size and weight of the truck, or how it will react in certain circumstances. They also seem to know the truck is always at fault, because that’s how it is portrayed in the media, even an accident between a truck and three cars is described as a ‘truck crash’! No matter who was at fault.


Now is the time to do something about it. We have the stats, Owen will come along and bend your ear about them anytime you want. We have the safety culture being driven into our industry by responsible operators and improving regulation.


What we don’t have is any form of consistent message reaching the ears of those people who are at fault in 88 per cent of all two vehicle accidents involving a truck. Why? Because they are the general public and we don’t know how to get a message to them? Because we don’t know who causes the accidents?


There must be a way to get all of the interested parties singing from the same hymn sheet and getting some real funding to send the right message to the right people. We just need a smart campaign, well designed and targeted at a group of people who are causing death on our roads.

Remain Vigilant

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

We often have to sit and listen to the powers that be telling us how committed they are on safety, our reaction is often something like, ‘put your money where your mouth is’. Well, this week someone finally did, it’s not a massive amount but it is significant symbolically.

The Australian Trucking Association has run some kind of Safety Trailer around since the early nineties. It began as a way of spreading the word, via visits to shopping centres etc. trying to get the general public to understand and be aware of the trucks with which they share the road.

Over time it has transmogrified into a teaching aide traveling from school to school all across Australia. Groups of kids are cycled through the truck and trailer in groups, getting the message about how to behave around trucks and, hopefully, inspiring some young minds to think about a career in the road transport industry.

It may be a small parcel of information trying to get through to a generation of kids who are constantly being bombarded with information for the whole of their waking lives. It is a real bit of information and the reality of a semi trailer parked up in the school yard is often impressive, in and of itself.

This Safety Trailer is funded by the ATA to the tune of over $200,000 a year and cost considerably more to set up in the first place and will cost even more when being refurbished later this year. It is a major cost to the organisation but the belief in its value, both by the ATA’s founders and its current leadership mean it will continue to function.

This week, I was at a small gathering where Sal Petroccitto, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator CEO, announced the regulator was going to contribute $5000 a year, for four years, to the ATA Safety trailer for the next four years.

While this is hardly going to make a major change to the state of the finances of the project, it does make a symbolic gesture about the importance of the project and the way the powers that be are thinking in this space, at the moment.

This is the regulator we are talking about, its job is to ensure the rules governing the road transport industry on the road are clearly stated and correctly enforced. Nowhere in the NHVR’s remit does it state it has to fund safety related initiatives by other organisations.

The signal it sends is clear, there is an agenda, apparently being driven from above, from the Federal Minister himself, to push safety and any initiative which will improve safety outcomes around the trucking industry.

We can only hope this kind of atmosphere continues, we don’t want to sit through another set of speeches at another safety related event to be told how important the philosophy of safety is in our industry. We want the speakers to do the right thing and ‘Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is!’

Remain Vigilant

Playing Political Games With Safety

Here we go again, just as happened last year, we have interest groups playing political games with safety. What is going to be lost from sight during the ongoing row and smokescreen? Actual safety on the road, that’s what!

The cause of the debate this time is a well targeted and well planned manoeuvre by the Transport Workers Union. A Safety Summit, organised by the TWU, was held last week and the major presentation was a report from a research team at Macqaurie University. Unsurprisingly, seeing as the TWU were involved, the report found safety was being compromised by low rates since the abolition of the RSRT.

“A Macquarie University report has revealed the major reasons why truck driving is Australia’s deadliest job,” ran one news report. “Long hours, pressure to drive unsafe schedules with unsafe loads and an inability to raise safety concerns without jeopardising their jobs are among the risks to safety facing drivers.”

Meanwhile in the Sydney Morning Herald: “A truck cabin is among the deadliest workplaces in Australia, new research shows. The Macquarie University study, which surveyed 559 truck drivers, found a high proportion are forced to work long and dangerous hours carrying unsafe loads to avoid losing their jobs.”

The summit was held without any dissenting voices in attendance. When the news reports hit the wires the representatives of the trucking industry were incensed and hit back with a number of statements in an effort to mitigate the damage.

Yet again the TWU demonstrated its PR nouse and got the jump on the trucking industry. Not only did it get real traction out there in the media, but for the general public, if they took any notice at all, the impression would have been one of truck driving being an extremely dangerous job because of the evil employers and shippers paying low rates.

One major outlet, the ABC, did follow up the initial story with one about the disgust of the trucking industry associations with the way the TWU had set up the research, released it at a summit by stealth and then got a lot of media attention for the results.

In the rebuttal, SARTA’s Steve Shearer was able to talk about what the TWU had done and introduce some facts with a bit more credible backing. However, the coverage on the ABC, two days after the event, is unlikely to have much impact.

What we have happening in this instance is, yet again, the trucking industry being on the back foot and being outmanoeuvred in the media by the TWU, which is, by the way, a member of the ATA. The TWU have the right to pursue their policies for the benefit of their members and the union itself, and they do so effectively and professionally.

Meanwhile on the other side of the argument, the industry’s representatives also do their job professionally and, they can claim, more ethically. However, the situation has not been handled effectively.

From the point of view of Joe Public, the trucking industry is a bad place to work, the rates are bad and causing danger to the general community. Yet again, we have lost a PR battle. I don’t have a solution, but could we commission some research to see if we can find one?


Remain Vigilant

Who’s Who in the Zoo?

The announcement this week by the National Transport Commission of a plan to develop a regular report into what is happening inside the road transport industry reminds us just how we don’t know who’s who in the zoo in the trucking world.


There is no reliable database about what trucks are shifting what freight, from where and to where. They can’t even come up with a reliable figure on how many truck operators there are in Australia. This point was highlighted last year when each media outlet had a different figure for how many owner drivers were going to be affected by the introduction of the RSRT.


We know we don’t know much, we also know what we know anecdotally from what people tell us and what we see. There are some ideas about what is going on with monthly truck sales figures, but we have only recently started to get any information about trailer sales.


There is accident information which breaks the data down by state and whether any truck involved is a rigid or articulated. This data is extended by the good work done by the NTI National Truck Accident Research Centre, drilling down into the insurance company’s own data to detect trends in on road behaviour in trucking.


Of course, we have some massive transport operators who record everything and get a really good snapshot of what is going on in their business. This data holds a very reliable picture of the whole industry. Unfortunately, it is owned by the company in question and they are not going to let anyone else know what’s going on, they are using good quality data to develop their own businesses.


So the best we can expect to get when looking at the trucking industry in Australia is, probably, an educated guess. This is probably good enough when putting together a weekly opinion piece for the Diesel News email newsletter, but not quite as dependable when developing government policy and planning infrastructure development.


Perhaps this can be used as an explanation for the dire policy decisions we have had to endure in the past. The trucking industry is unknown and ignored by government until something goes wrong. Then the knee jerk reaction shows the government doing something, but it’s always reactive, ill-judged and often ill-timed.


Even in this era of data being recorded all of the time about everything, we are still not very far from the situation where we are ‘making transport policy by the side of the road’, as we were in 1989. The example of the RMS reaction after the Mona Vale crash comes to mind on this front.


We are still dealing with the consequences of the scatter gun approach to regulation which has given us a myriad of different rules, in different states, many of which are in direct conflict with each other.


The proposed NTC report is planned to be a five yearly thing, so we can’t even expect to get the first snapshot until well after 2020. Then we will have to wait another five years to identify any trends. After that it will be a further couple of years to get some new regulations, laws, initiatives which will use the data to make things better. Don’t hold your breath!

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Working Together For Mutual Benefit

When you talk to trucking operators who work in rural areas, they have a completely different attitude to competition than their counterparts in the big city, it’s all about working together for mutual benefit. In the metropolitan areas, in the capital cities, it is simply a matter of dog eat dog. No quarter is given, any competitive advantage is seized upon, flogged to death to try and drive the competition out of business.

In the big cities, the amount of work available is huge. Customers do not have any need to think about about loyalty to a particular trucking company, there are plenty more willing to come in and do the job cheaper, but not necessarily better.

This is also the home ground of the big boys, the national operators with enormous market power. They have deep pockets and if they pursue a particular transport task, they are going to get it, or get into a bidding war with another member of the big end of town.

This market environment has led to an extremely lean and mean trucking industry, which can, on occasion, push the envelope just a bit too far. In this kind of atmosphere, the smartest, but also the ruthless, rise to the top, no-one takes any prisoners.

Out in the rural areas the atmosphere is somewhat different. Out here, the trucking task is infinitely variable. Much of the basic work handled by the trucking operators relates back to the agriculture industry, in one way or another. This is also an area where rates are normally low, especially when you factor in the scarcity of good back loading.

The game is all about peaks and troughs. The weather has a lot to do with the prosperity, or otherwise, of each region. No rain, or rain at the wrong time, can turn the peak season into one where the trucking boss sits and looks out of the window at parked up trucks and trailers.

The best solution rural operators have come up with, so far, is all about working together. If a company geared up with enough equipment to cover all of the work it could get in a boom year, it will be running a lot of severely under-utilised equipment most of the time.

Last year’s harvest in Western Australia is a case in point. Record tonnages saw everyone working flat out and reaping the rewards. Trailer makers were snowed under with orders for new tippers, as a result. Nobody, no matter how big, was trying to get all of the tipper work, however. To do so would be a folly, this year’s rains are unlikely to repeat the good fortune.

Instead, the rural operators have to work out a way to ensure there is enough capacity in any particular area to handle those booms, without anyone getting overstretched and over-equipped. This is where co-operation comes in.

There needs to be a level of trust between competitors to get it to work out, but the mutual gains tend to ensure a certain level of honesty between competitors. When it’s all going off in one area and the transporters can’t cope, they can call in other operators from other areas to help out. They can do so, in the certain knowledge, a similar call will be made in the opposite direction when the tables are turned.

It is in this way the rural trucking industry can survive in these areas. Rates are low, if they weren’t the big boys would be in there. Operators watch farmers going bust every week because they have over capitalised. They don’t to make the same mistake and this drives them into a hybrid business model, part competition, part co-operative.

Of course, there are sharks everywhere and the system can often fall down when a word and a handshake are taken back. Overall though, it is testament to both a survival instinct and a nicer side to human nature, which makes this system work.


Remain Vigilant

Tackling the Big Issues

Here we are at the beginning of a New Year and we need to think about tackling the big issues, once again. It’s time to take stock and prepare to fight the good fight to keep the right agenda on the table for the trucking industry, at the same time as working to improve the image and standing of trucking in the general community.

Of course, we have perennial issues which will be with us forever. The whole area of safety and keeping people safe at work is a never ending challenge. It is one of those issues which needs constant attention and has the potential to go wrong at any point.

There is always resistance and a tendency among those involved at the ground level to believe the whole safety agenda has gone too far and hinders good work practices. People get frustrated and there is always a lot of talk about the company covering their backsides. This is true, they are, covering the company against the risk of litigation if anything goes wrong. This also has the useful side-effect of reducing injuries, not a bad result.

An ongoing issue which has made life hell for us in the industry is supposed to be diminishing in the future, but we will have to wait and see. The ridiculous inconsistencies in rules and enforcement between the states is slated to disappear when the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator get their collective feet under the table around the nation and genuinely call the shots, when it comes to running the roadside enforcement crews.

We should never underestimate the ability of individual state government, parliament, bureaucrats and others to throw the unexpected spanner in the works, just when the situation is improving. The NHVR seems to be in control of a process to get all of its ducks lined up over the next eighteen months, but the industry’s skepticism is born out of many frustrating years of promised reform getting derailed at the last moment.

The whole issue of remuneration is a sticky one. There are two polar opposites on this issue, but most of the trucking industry sits somewhere in between the two, often pulled in conflicting directions. At one side we have the Transport Workers Union and an ongoing safe rates campaign, coupling road safety with rates and driving.

On the other hand we have a transport industry dominated by a few massive operators, but populated by many thousands of smaller operators who have to be price-takers from the big boys. This leads to a situation where one side is holding down rates for a commercial reason, while the other side is driving up rates to get more of the task handled by the bigger, unionised fleets.

This issue will drag on and on, the TWU has the resources to fight every step of the way, while the big boys keep a low profile. The poor small operator bears the brunt of the issue and has little say in any outcome, little change expected there.

One issue which did get more attention last year, and hopefully will get even more in 2017, is driver perception. This is a very broad topic. On the one hand we are talking about the way truck drivers are perceived out on the road by other road users. It is also about the way drivers are treated within the industry, about getting some respect for their skills and commitment.

As the driver shortage continues and the average age of drivers increases, the smart operators are going to have to come up with more and better ways of making their drivers, working at the coal face, feel a bit more loved and have pride in their profession and abilities. This is going to be a long process, but we need to start making progress on the issue now.


Remain Vigilant

Remaining Positive

Well, we are into the New Year of 2017 and the team here at Diesel News is determined in its resolution of remaining positive. It’s important to maintain perspective and keep the optimism about future developments for the trucking industry going.

Of course, the chances of the situation going pear-shaped over the holiday period are quite low. The politicians are on their holidays and unable to sign off on anything affecting our industry. They seem to be too busy signing contracts to buy new apartments on the Gold Coast, it seems!

At the same time, the likes of A Current Affair and the rest of the anti-trucking media are beholden to produce feel good and positive stories for the festive season. Luckily, the daily news has had little content in it about major traffic accidents involving trucks, apart from the very unfortunate incident in which a driver was killed after being pulled over by the police.

So in the interests of remaining positive, Diesel News is looking to the future with a degree of good humour. Truck sales, reported elsewhere show a degree of optimism in the industry as a whole, which is stronger at the lighter end.

The legislators seem to be looking at truck-related legislation with a much more long term view than they have in the past. We need a lot less knee jerk reactions and a few more considered developments of policy. This seems to be the trend as the relationship between the National Transport Commission and the National Heavy Vehicle regulator remains strong.

At the same time the NHVR can be seen to be driving the bus a bit better than they have in the past. The realistic goals and long, but also realistic, timelines, with set agendas and proper consultation, seem to be making the State Transport Ministers a little less jumpy and less likely to react in a knee jerk fashion than they have in the past.

This may not be the case in Western Australia, where an ongoing battle continues to hot up around how freight is going to get from the Port of Fremantle to the rest of the state, without upsetting the local NIMBYs of Perth. Perhaps the lack of stability there can be explained by the decision by WA to reject the NHVR?

We may get a bit of controversy around the Chain of Responsibility, but when was COR anything but contentious? Perhaps when the first big fines are handed out to anyone who is not a transport company, we will be able to sleep soundly in our beds. At the moment, it is looking like other parties, up and down the chain, are waking up to their responsibilities, at last!