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Shut Down The RMS

Every time NSW’s Roads and Maritime Services misrepresent the trucking industry and its safety record, we need to shut down the RMS. The trucking industry needs to make sure assertions about truck safety by the state agency are rebutted every time the, so called, facts are uttered.

What is it which is getting me so annoyed? It is not one single message which has been put out in the media recently, but an ongoing attitude and policy position which has no basis in the cold hard facts.

In the wake of every major accident or enforcement operation the spokesperson for most state road agencies come up with the same misconstruing of the facts. RMS just happen to be the worst offender. The same old lines are trotted out about how unsafe trucks are and how the road agency is going to come down hard on all of these offenders.

The headline number usually goes something like, ‘250 trucks were inspected by our team today and 30 per cent of the trucks were found to have major defects on their brakes’. This is held up as a major coup for the agency and the state’s roads are going to be much safer as a direct result of this action and the fines etc which accompany them.

Where is the basis of this assertion? The spokesperson does not draw a line from A to B to show us how these trucks being defected is going to lead to fewer accidents and fatalities on the road, but the implication this is the case is clearly there.

Let’s look at the real figures and then work out how effective this operation has been. In the figures to be published soon by the National Truck Accident Research Centre, in all of the accidents included in the figures, representing a large proportion of the trucks on our roads, only 3.5 per cent of the incidents were the result of mechanical failure. Furthermore, the team estimate 60 per cent of that 3.5 per cent were tyre failures.

This means approximately 1.4 per cent of accidents were caused by a genuine mechanical failure on the truck itself. Not all of these were brake failures (steering would also contribute a few). There fore we have this major safety initiative being heralded by the RMS attacking less than one per cent of the accidents involving trucks.

What are they doing about the other 99 per cent of accidents?

We have to thank the NTARC for highlighting this discrepancy. Owen Driscoll, from NTI, and his team have been pointing out this low incidence of accidents caused by brake defects when the report comes out every couple of years for some time now. It’s about time the trucking industry turned round and used its own figures in the general media to blow the bogus claims of the road authorities out of the water.

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Training, Training, Training

In the same way the real estate agent will talk about location, location, location, anyone talking about the best future for the trucking industry has to talk about training, training, training. The industry needs to progress, but the workforce is getting older and the supply of bright young talent is dwindling.

Why is the supply dwindling and why are experienced workers leaving the industry? It’s because it’s not an attractive industry to work in. The best candidates do not put their hand up to join the trucking industry’s workforce. Many in the industry expend a considerable amount of energy trying to get out of the game, quite often making several attempts.

One of the major disadvantages to working in the industry is a lack of recognition of the individual’s skills and experience. Qualifications also mean it is possible to get skilled and move up the pay scale.

There are myriad reasons why trucking people do not have qualifications and why employers do not expect potential employees to have them. The exception being the tickets needed to work on fork lifts, with dangerous goods, carting fuel etc, etc.

Recognition of skills would work on several levels. One is the satisfaction of the employee, being told you have reached a certain standard and are qualified to handle a particular task, can be very satisfying.

Training isn’t unheard of in the trucking industry, but it is definitely not ubiquitous. Work for a big operator, a national company and there will be opportunities to get some training and have a piece of paper proving you know what you’re doing.

The reality is most people work for smaller companies, organisations which have little time or funding to educate their workforce. Many smaller operators don’t believe in training full stop. They get an employee and get them up to speed with the job in hand and hope to keep hold of them once they are proficient. Help an employee to get some form of qualification and they have something which will help them get another job.

The Australian trucking industry is getting to the point when it will not be possible to function properly as an operation without properly trained employees. The job is becoming ever more complex and sophisticated. The equipment we are using is also much more sophisticated and will only function productivity if used properly.

Probably more important, from the point of view of the employer, is the ever more complex legal environment in which transport companies operate. It is vital everyone in your team knows how to do the right thing and can demonstrate a competence to do the right thing.

Aspects of the chain of responsibility rules, make it imperative to have a properly skilled and trained operative on a task. If an operation cannot demonstrate it is using a team who are well equipped and trained to ensure the safety of a load and the safety of those travelling around it may be liable if something goes awry.

What’s wrong with being part of a more professional industry? Why can’t we reward those who do a good job with acknowledgement of their skills and pay them accordingly? The art of throwing people in the deep end and hoping they can swim, which pertained when I joined the industry, just does not cut it in this modern litigious world.

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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.


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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.

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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!’

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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?


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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!

Remain Vigilant

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.