Get Your Stats Right

Talking Turkey About Trucking

We are all aware of the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’, but we also know statistics are only ever used if they agree with your argument. The trucking industry is always being damned by the numbers trotted out by those who want to paint a picture of woe in road transport.


A disproportionately high percentage of fatal accidents on Australian roads involve trucks. Taken as a bald statistic, it can be used to tell a story about trucks on the highway going too fast and being driven by drug crazed truckies. In recent years, we seem to have been able to make sure the figures are presented with the caveat about the very high proportion of these being found to have been the result of a mistake or dangerous driving on the part of the car involved, but this is often ignored.


Elsewhere, on the TV news, we see a raid by enforcement on a fleet or a distribution centre in which truck compliance is being checked. The public statement after the fact invariably comes up with some frightening numbers, if you are a truck-fearing car driver.


The numbers will sound really bad, perhaps 32 out of the 85 tested had braking systems which are classified as in major breach. To the person on the street this sounds like a shocking figure, these trucks should be off the road. There is never any explanation of what is recorded as a major breach, and how long this set of criteria have been in force.


Braking systems are incredibly complex with countless components. If the combination contains a major breach, does this mean, if a young mother walked out onto a pedestrian crossing, the truck wouldn’t be able to stop? No, it does not. It means some componentry involved in the system is working outside the parameters set by the regulations. A complete failure of the truck and trailer brakes is rare and can cause mayhem, whenever it occurs. That is not what these major breaches are all about.


Another figure which constantly creates bad press and public sentiment is 100 km/h. Trucks are fitted with speed limiters set at 100, or maybe 103, or maybe 95, but normally between 100 and 103. This is an acceptable speed for a truck to be travelling along a highway, in the eyes of the authorities.


Unfortunately, the speedometers in the cars sharing the road with these trucks are much less accurate. As a result, the car makers deliberately calibrate the speedos to show 100 km/h at a lower speed, usually in the mid-nineties, to avoid liability in speeding fines.


What this does is create a situation where the car driving public tootle along the freeway at a supposed 100 km/h (in fact, it could be as low as 93) and then watch the monster trucks race past them, way over the speed limit. I myself have tried to explain this to many car owners at many barbecues, only to see their eyes glaze over and myself being written of as a rogue truckie.


I was shown an interesting set of graphs, last week, which would fly in the face of the presenters of A Current Affair and the spokespersons for the RMS. What they show is what a fantastic job the trucking industry is doing to in improving overall safety out there on the highway. We admit we have a flawed system, but it isn’t that flawed.


It’s a simple graph of fatal crashes involving articulated trucks, between 1982 and 2014. The line shows a steady, but gradual decline in the number of fatal crashes from the mid-two hundreds down to around one hundred over the period of 32 years. Commendable, but not earth shattering.


The next line on the graph is the number of articulated trucks registered and on the road. This climbs over the 32 year span from below 50,000 in 1982 up to well over 90,000 in 2014. This reflects the growth in the trucking industry over this time.


Now put these two sets of data together and you come up with a line which tells you the rate of fatal crashes per articulated vehicle on the road. This line looks much more dramatic. From a rate of over 0.005 per cent in 1982, the trucking industry has got the rate down to 0.001 per cent. This is the line we never see, because it doesn’t fit with the narrative, which the media outlets and tabloid journalists are pushing.


With numbers like these, people in trucking need to try and seize this narrative and get this kind of info out there. Actually, add in the amount of kilometres these trucks travel in a year, and the improvement in safety shown by the statistics would look even better.