The debacle which constitutes a census this week means the population of Australia now feels just like we do in trucking, we are the unknown unknown. As a result of a cyber attack or gross incompetence on the part of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an idea of where this country stands and an accurate picture of the population’s make up is unlikely to appear.
This is much the same as the situation the trucking industry has always been in, completely in the dark. Historically, no-one, the government, the operators or the industry associations, has had any idea of what the trucking industry actually looks like.
We all know what it looks like from our point of view, like a single person standing somewhere in the Nullarbor trying to work out how big Australia is and how many people live in it. We can have no clear idea.
Admittedly, we do have some information. The Truck Industry Council tells us how many trucks we have bought this month. The Australian Road Transport Suppliers Association does a sterling job monitoring the registration data from all of the states and tries to make head or tail of it. The ABS itself does give a some statistics but we are often lumped in with other parts of the freight industry or have a large number of truck operators classified in their own industry, not as road transport.
There we have it, we truly are the unknown unknown. As a result, we do not appear in those many statistics policy makers are wont to spout when telling us what’s good for us. It also means any legislation aimed at our industry will often be way off the mark, the RSRT being a prime example.
During those heady days in March and April, when the media and top politicians actually discovered the trucking industry and perused our issues from afar, the variation in the statistics quoted was alarming.
How many owner/drivers are there? 25,000? 50,000? What proportion of the trucking industry are they? 50 per cent? 75 per cent? In how many accidents is the rate paid for the load a factor in its cause? What are the pressing issues concerning small operators in the trucking industry?
The answer to all of the above is, of course, we don’t know. As a result of actually not knowing how can we actually formulate policy and regulations to improve the industry, its safety and its effectiveness? We can’t, instead we have to make an educated guess and hope for the best.
Another illustration of our lack of knowledge was seen in the aftermath of the Mona Vale tanker crash three years ago. Reporting statistics gleaned from roadside checks and roadworthys told us most of the trucks on our roads were safe.
However, a few raids by the Roads and Maritime Services in NSW showed us a very high proportion of trucks had brake defects. Whether this was a result of bad maintenance practices, moving the goalposts or incompetence, no-one knows. We are none the wiser.
At least the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator is looking for some clarity. The exercise of doing spot checks on 9,000 trucks this month, all made using the same criteria should give us some reliable data to work with.
It is also likely to uncover data certain stakeholders don’t want to hear. It may show operators are running trucks without a care for public safety, it may show some state jurisdictions get safer trucks than others or it may show we know nothing about the industry.
Even if the data from this exercise does come up with real effective information, it is still only a small chink of light in a vast amount of darkness. Trucking is going to need a wide array of these kinds of survey to get a handle on who we are and where we stand. Until then, we just have to suck it up and learn to live with ill-advised policy and a lottery of new laws governing the industry.