Talking Turkey About Trucking

It’s a numbers game

In the aftermath of recent accidents and compliance campaigns by roadside enforcement, one of the things given to the press is the percentage of raw numbers of defects or notices issued. These figures are always given out without context and used to create unrest in the general public.

 

A recent interview with one of those figures involved in a lot of these stories, Paul Endycott, General Manager of Compliance Operations at RMS, actually brought out some figures and the relative proportions of offences. By giving fuller disclosure we do get a better idea about what’s going on out on the highway than the random numbers thrown out in the media, like the seven maintenance items identified in the VicRoads sweep of the BP truck fleet after the accident in Wodonga last week.

 

In the past year Roads and Maritime Services in NSW have inspected 559,903 trucks and trailers. Of these 72,787 were issued defect notices. This may appear, at first glance, as a high figure but it is worth remembering the relatively low level of fault which can attract a notice. Also, since the introduction of the National Heavy Vehicle Law there are no warnings issued, they go straight to a notice.

 

The numbers can be used to suggest bad practice, but everyone in the industry knows, there is no way 13 per cent of trucks on the road are in a dangerous condition. The reasons given for the defect notices being issued shown issues ticked off by the RMS are all over the vehicle.

 

21 per cent of the notices were for brake issues, 19 were called ancillary faults, body and chassis issues made up 18 per cent and wheels made up 16 per cent. At a lower level again, oil and fuel leaks, as well as suspension issues made up eight per cent each.

 

When it comes to breach reports, three per cent of the over half a million trucks had one issued. The vast majority of these were for mass offences.

 

Look at those figures from a trucking industry point of view and it all looks reasonably OK. Yes, we could all do a little better, but this is the real world. The RMS are seen to be getting very finicky in their inspections, just looking to rack up defect numbers in order to demonstrate how well they are doing their job.

 

However, put these numbers into the wrong hands of the spin doctors and we have a different kind of game altogether. All they need is to throw in a few choice adjectives and the fear and loathing of the general public for the trucking industry can get inflamed.

 

‘A massive 13 per cent of all trucks stopped on NSW highways were found to be faulty’ is the kind of hyperbole we could see. ‘Over one-in-five trucks were found to have defective brakes’ might also make an appearance. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Keeping a camera on safety

Safety is one of the difficult topics for the trucking industry. Putting the emphasis on safety and safety systems is vital in any industry in Australia today. The problem for the trucking industry is the business we are in is intrinsically dangerous.

 

It doesn’t matter what systems and training are involved, 68 tonnes of metal hurtling down an open highway at 100 km/m with a carbon based life form at the front is inherently dangerous. Add into the mix the ability of any other person, vehicle or animal on that highway to go wherever they like whether it is dangerous or not, and you have a potential disaster.

 

Another factor is these other road users are the general public, the voters, on whom the politicians depend. Hurt one hair on their head and you are the big baddie. Basically, you can’t win.

 

On the other side of the equation is the business running the trucks. Work is done for historically low rates and the margins in the work leave little to spare for extras. In the past, the customers did not care about the safety of your truck, just price. Chain of responsibility laws may have woken a few of the big players up, but not all.

 

As a result of all this, the truck operator has little control over improving safety. The only solution is to work as hard as possible to improve safety where you do have control. Changing driver culture and training safety into a workforce does yield results but will only go so far and last for so long.

 

Others revert to a purely technological solution. Put as many safety features on the truck to improve safety. Electronic stability control is a wonderful thing and has actually proven itself out on our highways. Other technologies like adaptive cruise and lane keeping warning do work and add to the safety improvement.

 

There are even fatigue monitoring devices to be worn on the eyes to detect higher than normal blink rates. These are effective but only to a limited extent.

 

A trial by Toll NQX seems to combine the new safety technology with driver training and culture change. A sample number of their trucks were fitted with cameras looking out at the road and in at the driver. This is effective in a number of ways.

 

Firstly, if there is an incident, it is recorded, both what happened and what the driver was doing. This shows who was at fault and whether driver contributed. Toll NQX have found driver distraction comes up as an issue regularly.

 

Secondly, despite initial push back from drivers, experience with the cameras soon allayed fears. If there was an incident the driver wanted to record they simply pushed a button and eight seconds before and after was saved. Privacy didn’t become an issue as the usefulness of the technology became plain.

 

The culture change did take place. Drivers were aware of the recording and would act responsibly. Supervisors reduced the number of calls they made to drivers on the road, reducing distraction. Placing in cab equipment in a better position reduced unnecessary eyes-off-the-road time.

 

The technology in these cameras is becoming cheaper every day. The trial by Toll NQX did deliver results by using the camera as a recording device and training tool, not a stick to beat drivers with. This isn’t just a ‘commitment to safety’, this is being smart and getting a result.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Damned with faint praise

The National Transport Commission (NTC) and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator has issued the first phase in the ‘Heavy Vehicle Roadworthiness Report of Current Practice’. The report goes into lengthy descriptions of how the different ways of ensuring safe trucks on our roads work, but one of the points it returns to is the fact, none of the current ways the different states monitor truck maintenance work particularly well.

 

An issue it does mention, without commenting on, is the variation, state by state, in the way truck maintenance is regulated. Surprisingly, for a combined effort from two national bodies which espouse the idea of a single national standard for the trucking industry, they fail to hit home the obvious point, a single way of regulating maintenance across Australia would benefit everyone, except the bureaucrats in the various state capitals. Many fleets move from state to state and have depots around the country, the simple act of trying to remain compliant with the plethora of different rules diverts resources from simply keeping the trucks well maintained.
The National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme (NHVAS) is damned with faint praise by the report. The NHVAS is the baby of the state regulators and, as such, can get in the way of truly national regulation of maintenance. It may be the same for everyone but is policed in a myriad of ways in the states. The NHVR and NTC hold back from out right criticism of NHVAS but the message is not good.
“At this stage, data collection methods do not yield sufficient, reliable data to reach a conclusive determination about whether the NHVAS provides an effective mechanism for achieving road safety outcomes relative to its objectives,” says the report.

 

The question of how the auditing process works has always been a grey area for the NHVAS and the provisions of the National Heavy Vehicle Law (NHVL), which the NHVR is set up to administer, does not help the improvement of secure auditing outcomes.

 

“The HVNL contains provisions allowing for the recognition of auditors, but provisions for the governance, accountability or liability of auditors are not included in the legislation nor the NHVAS Business Rules which set out the high level policies and process for the Scheme,” says the report.

 

Here is a recommendation the trucking industry needs to push for in the lead up to the second phase of this reporting process, get the law sorted out! The second phase will include how to move forward from the current regime to improve outcomes. This is where the trucking industry needs to speak with one voice and push for the kind of reform we must have, or we will remain the whipping boys, in terms of truck safety, for the enforcement agencies.

 

Most agree accreditation is the way forward, but the only way accreditation actually works is if it has credibility. This is the touchstone for all of the various accreditation schemes around the country, for some more than others. Credible auditing and transparent maintenance regimes breed confidence. When credibility is lacking the kind of actions by the NSW RMS in the wake of the Cootes tanker accident are always going to happen.

 

Roadside enforcement will harass a truckie at the roadside even if all of the certificates for all manner of things are present and correct. The result, antipathy and downright aggression between the two parties. Complain about harassment and the authorities can rightly point to transgressions by other operators with similar accreditation. Get the accreditation right at the ground level so it is as watertight as possible then roadside enforcement will have to back off and concentrate on the ones they should really be after, the cowboys who are out there taking the piss out of us all!

 

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Looking for good news?

The hunt is on for good news. Even when the news is good, it’s bad. The trucking industry doesn’t stand a chance. Even if we do something right and get a result, someone else takes the credit. We just can’t win.

 

I was interested to read Andrew Higginson’s thoughts on this subject recently. He talks about a ‘Kick a truckie’ attitude in the media and government, demonstrated by the recent publicity around the Austrans operation and coverage talking about transporting drugs in trucks.

 

One of the issues which galled him the most was the publicity generated around good news about trucking. Excessive speeding truck incidents in NSW had dropped by 91 per cent and the annual deaths from accidents involving trucks has decreased by over 30 per cent in the last ten years. We should expect the take-away for the general public from this would be positive. We were wrong!

 

In fact, according to the media reports, these falls were due to NSW having the toughest truck compliance regime in Australia. Don’t let me get this wrong but hasn’t NSW ALWAYS had the toughest truck compliance regime in Australia? It didn’t just start a few years ago.

 

This ongoing misrepresentation goes to the heart of the problem for the trucking industry. This unrelenting negative bias against the vast majority who are responsible, honest and safe means it is always a vote winner for the politician who talks about cracking down on this rogue industry.

 

We have the recent example of the Mona Vale incident for Cootes last year It was amazing how a Minister who has been supportive of trucking came out with extremely harsh language and actions against the whole industry, not just Cootes. There was no balance in the coverage of the event, just demonisation of a significant industry sector and a plague on all of our houses.

 

“I apologise for thinking the majority of the industry who go about their business day in day out trying to do the right thing in delivering the goods for all Australians have played an important role in improving safety outcomes,” said Andrew, in his Livestock and Bulk Carriers Association Newsletter. “Or that these are the people who have been campaigning and encouraging governments and enforcement authorities to target the minority doing the wrong thing, not to focus on those trying to do the right thing.”

 

Apology accepted, Andrew!

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Say it like you mean it

 

Sometimes, we have the best intentions when we say something or make a promise, but circumstances conspire against us and we can’t deliver. Other times, we say something because we think we should, but do not wholly, in our heart of hearts, intend to carry it through.

 

It’s difficult to tell which of these applies to the trucking industry’s attitude to fuel economy. Most people running a trucking operation will tell anyone who wants to listen, one of their chief concerns is good fuel economy. Look at the way the operation is running and a number of ways to save fuel will always pop up, but are rarely carried through.

 

Why is this? Why do we say we think a subject is very important and then carry on as if it is not? The answer is, of course, complicated. In an ideal world we would all like to save on costs and reduce fuel consumption, but running a truck, a driver and a trucking operation get in the way.

 

There are so many imperatives in the operation of a trucking business. The goods must arrive at the delivery point safely and on time, they must also be in the right condition, drivers are needed who can handle the task with little direct supervision and freight carrying capacity must be maximised on every truck.

 

These automatically eliminate a number of fuel saving strategies. Run at 90 km/h and below and the amount of fuel used to get the task done is reduced considerably. The loading and scheduling process can’t help but put pressure on drivers to get there ASAP. Getting to the delivery point in good time takes a lot of stress out of their lives.

 

Training drivers to use fuel saving driving strategies may get results, but this gain can be short-lived, if reinforcing incentives and follow up training are not part of the process. This means more expense and more time off the road. An employer can also can alienate experienced staff who don’t need to be taught how to suck eggs, and good drivers are hard to find.

 

Slow running and training tend to be half done and end up in the too hard basket. Proper training can reduce fuel by 20 per cent, if done correctly. Speed reduction is an substantial automatic reduction in the fuel bill. They are also the hardest to introduce and implement, so what’s the alternative?

 

This leaves us with equipment solutions, which are those which yield the lowest results. Put an air kit on the prime mover and it will shave a very small percentage off the fuel consumption, as long as it is always set right. We have seen enough flat tops being pulled by prime movers with a full air kit to know this is not always the case.

 

Aerodynamics on the trailer can also shave a little off the fuel bill but it’s difficult to quantify. Close coupling the trailer will get good results but often compromises front axle weight. An overloaded front axle can be quite expensive. Fuel saving tyres may help but, again, the results may be hard to calculate.

 

Then we come to the snake oil salespeople. There are any number of fantastic sounding fuel saving devices arriving on our shores every year. Some may have merit, some definitely do not. How can you tell? The way they work is often surrounded in mystery or the examples quoted are from overseas.

 

The truth of the matter is, we have learned to live with the fuel consumption we currently get and we will be able to in the future. Saving costs is always going to be attractive, but getting the job done on time must always be paramount. For most of the Australian trucking industry, seriously reducing fuel consumption is on the wish list but not on the to do list.

 

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Darth Vader at the NTC

Comments attributed to the CEO of the National Transport Commission (NTC), Paul Retter, this week, have him saying, “I’ll be like Darth Vader entering the arena”. This kind of talk is not out of character as earlier this year, at the LBCA Conference in Tamworth, he talked about NHVAS maintenance being a joke which the NTC needs to fix.

 

This is the kind of talk needed from someone in his position. We have been hedging around these issues for too long and now it’s about time the truth was told and the issues faced head-on. The issue where Retter plans to do his Darth Vader impersonation is on access for higher mass vehicles and the intransigence of the road managers.

 

Retter can’t do this on his own. As he says, “I’ll need industry’s help to do this because, trust me, this is cultural change 101 when it comes to road infrastructure managers.” What is needed is dropping the petty rivalries. Industry, policy makers and regulators need to demand a sensible approach from the protectors of OUR infrastructure.

 

This is all about getting the road managers to take on a new philosophy and a risk based approach to access for trucks. In the past, calculations were done, bridges assessed and a formula used to work out mass and dimension rules for a particular road. The arithmetic included an assumption trucks would be way overloaded on some occasions and was also a very conservative estimate of the stress any road would come under.

 

The world has changed, there is onboard mass monitoring on each axle and systems guaranteeing no overloading on set routes. However, the calculations are still done the same way with a unsustainable margin for error. The way Retter sees it the process needs to work in the opposite direction. Access should be a given unless there is evidence to the contrary. The default setting should be yes, unless there’s a good reason why it should be no.

 

NatRoad CEO, Chris Melham has come out this week in support, “The NTC is right in calling for a risk-based approach to road asset use and maintenance. Realistic and practical solutions need to be found that deliver to the community the efficiency and productivity benefits that improved access can provide.”

 

In fact, everyone with an interest in this subject has an incentive to get the way we look at access changed. For trucking it is a matter of much improved productivity, for the NTC this productivity increase is part of their KPIs, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator needs to show it has some rational control of access and state government’s life would be much easier if they put the road managers back in their box.

 

Can we get this up? Why not? A single rational approach, with trucking demonstrating a united, responsible approach would give the law makers something to work with. We get our house in order and we will leave the road managers without a leg to stand on in their dogged opposition to progress.

 

Progress has to come, a crisis in infrastructure availability, and consequently the economy, is looming. Let’s get in there and be part of the solution, plus, get vastly increased productivity as part of the bargain. Retter is talking the kind of talk trucking needs to hear, we need to get involved and help him make it happen.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Jerking the chain

A review of the chain of responsibility rules and their enforcement is long overdue and the National Transport Commission (NTC) has released its draft proposals to improve the effectiveness of the Compliance and Enforcement laws, as they stand. As to whether the changes proposed will make any difference to life for the truckie, there’s another question. Perhaps we need to think a bit more out of the box to make it work?

Read more

Talking Turkey About Trucking

It’s the infrastructure, stupid

In the US Presidential campaign of 1992, Bill Clinton’s team famously had the slogan, ‘It’s the economy stupid’, pinned to its office walls. Clearly, the Coalition Governments, both federally and in the states have something similar reminding them just how important the improvement of the country’s infrastructure is to the economy, or their ratings in the polls.

 

This year has seen a series of commitments to infrastructure spending from governments with massive figures being bandied about, a few billion here, and a few billion there. This week has seen another series of announcements in speeches by politicians.

 

The ‘Infrastructure’ Minister in Abbott’s ‘Infrastructure’ Government is Warren Truss and this week he continued his tour of the country by talking about how much is going to be spent on the new Bridges Renewal Programme and Round Four of the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program.

 

These are relatively small commitments, $500 million over the next five years, but Truss is pronouncing these kinds of things weekly. Last week, it was Northern Territory development, Queanbeyan bypass and the Bruce at Cairns. The week before it was the second Toowoomba Range Crossing…..

 

In New South Wales, Roads and Freight Minister, Duncan Gay, talked about record funding to up productivity and efficiency of the NSW freight network, as part of the 2014-15 State Budget. His statement is another list of spending commitments for freight related improvements.

 

As an industry, trucking needs to work out how much of this is new money and how much was already in the pipeline. Is there actually going to be that much more and improved infrastructure available to freight, than there would have been before all of these announcements were made?

 

What we do know for sure is, governments now understand spending on and thinking about freight is important. This is a victory for lobby groups who have been banging on to the authorities about the massive increase in the freight task for well over ten years.

 

Another victory is the presentation to the Senate of rule changes to increase the independence of Infrastructure Australia. This should free up the way infrastructure development is planned, funded and carried out. More good news for the freight industry.

 

This all seems to be good news, and it is. We are still not sure how much of this spending is new money, but funds from government asset sales will definitely boost the amount available. If there is a cloud on the horizon, it’s the prospect of massive road works over periods of years in the areas where congestion is already a major problem. C’est la vie.

 

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Maximising productivity

 

All the time a truck is parked up it is spending money not making it, so one of the best ways of making money is to keep the truck moving. This is one of the simplest rules to follow in terms of productivity in the trucking industry.

 

I have recently spent a week in Italy at the global launch of the new Daily van range and noticed just how our European cousins perform in the productivity stakes. The trucks in Europe spend a lot of time not moving, the inefficiency is palpable as trucks will spend large chunks of the day and night sitting idle.

 

Now, this is not a dig at the idle Italians or Australian arrogance about our superior trucking industry, it is simply an observation about the practices on the two different continents. The sharp contrast between the two systems serves to demonstrate just how much more efficiently we are using our resources (vehicles) than some of the most sophisticated economies on earth.

 

The problem for the Europeans is the regulatory environment. Driving hours rules are strictly enforced and extremely stringent when compared to our own. The maximum number of hours a driver can drive in one day is ten hours, and only for two days in a week. The rest of the time they are limited to just nine hours driving. Overall in the week they must not exceed, averaging over a two week period, 54 hours driving.

 

At the same time congestion on the busy European motorway network means drivers are not guaranteed to reach planned destinations reliably in the allocated time. The combination of limited driving hours and uncertain scheduling mean a lot of slack has to be built into the system to ensure the goods get to the customer reliably on schedule.

 

The slack built in to the scheduling means there is a lot of idle time for drivers and trucks. A load being shifted to a site 8.5 hours away is not guaranteed to get to the destination in a single shift. As a result, the schedulers have to always assume the worst and get trucks and loads close to their destination well in time for their slot.

 

Of course, this ends up with loads waiting close to their destination for long periods of time. The punishment for a late delivery can be very harsh. In my own experience, we lost up to $1000 an hour on a load rate if the truck missed its allotted delivery time. This was urgent perishables, but the payment structure certainly concentrated the mind on making absolutely sure the truck didn’t miss its window. Often this meant a truckie getting a good run was on site over twenty hours before delivery time.

 

This kind of wasted time is very expensive, in terms of productivity. Waiting around all day would be completely unacceptable in an operation in Australia. We are lucky to be able to work with uncongested inter-capital routes and fatigue rules which give some flexibility to the driver in managing rest.

 

Of course, all of our competitors have the same opportunities and rates reflect this. Therefore, our fantastic productivity capabilities do not result in equally high profitability for Australian trucking. Comparison with the European system does give us an opportunity to understand our trucking industry is at the leading edge of transport and logistics around the world. Looking at Europe we are able to benchmark our industry and realise we are not going quite as badly as we thought!

 

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Reinforcing stereotypes

Trucking industry people have a legitimate gripe when they claim their industry is badly represented in the media with a consequent negative attitude to all things trucking from the general populace. Again this week, a story hits the newswires which will reinforce all of the bad things people think about trucks and truckies on the roads.

The massive fines handed out to Scotts Transport will have brought every one up with a start. Every operator knows they are vulnerable to situations like this where the enforcement arm come down hard and start a deep investigation of one aspect of the trucking business. Scotts will not claim there is no blame attached to the company, there has been wrongdoing by drivers and some in the company have allowed a situation to develop which left a major transport company open to big fines and public humiliation.

However, the decision by the Roads and Maritime Services in NSW to come down hard on them owes a lot to the fraught situation at the time of the investigation after truck crashes caused public concern. It has to be pointed out, the decision by the court found there was not a systemic failure in the operation, but mistakes and bad decisions were made.

The general public will only see what gets through to them in the general media and use the information gained to inform their feelings when large trucks pass them and intimidate them out on the highway. Talk of trucks at 143 km/h and large fines for speeding tell them the trucking industry is mad, bad and dangerous to know. This just creates more distrust and causes more antagonism.

At the same time, the RMS feel pressured to make an example of someone to reassure this general public, who also happen to be voters. Trucks crash, people die and someone has to pay. We have already seen Cootes put through the wringer in this way.

We have a situation here where everyone is reinforcing negative stereotypes, to the detriment of the situation of all stakeholders in the trucking industry, for both the short and long term. There can be no co-operative attitude or inclusive action when trucking operations and roadside enforcement hold each other in contempt and view the other with deep distrust.

People in the trucking industry feel victimised, as they are being demonised in the media and news outlets run their own agenda, where engendering more fear in the car driver public, to increase website clicks, simply reinforces their concerns.

Who wins out of all this? Not the trucking industry. Not the general public. Not the regulators.