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No Roadside Enforcement

As a result of an industrial dispute there will be no roadside enforcement next week. Unfortunately, this news comes out of Poland – we Australians are not getting a holiday from the rules any time soon. The strike is a result of an ongoing pay dispute.

 

I would suggest, if the enforcement officers have been disgruntled for some time, the poor truckies getting pulled up at the side of the road on their way to Warsaw would have copped a few unnecessary fines after coming across inspectors in a bad mood about their wages.

 

As an industry we have a problematic relationship with those who are posted on our highways to make sure we are all doing the right thing. This is not just an Aussie thing, it is universal. Having driven professionally in Western Europe and Australia, I can say the issues are commonplace. The only thing which changes is the name of the offence and the currency the fine has to be paid in.

 

Why are we so resentful of the representatives of the ‘powers that be’ going over our trucks and records with a fine toothcomb? It is hard to get to the core of the issue. Is it because we are all regular lawbreakers afraid of getting caught? No it is not.

 

One of the issues at the heart of the problem is the fact the vast majority of those on the road are doing the right thing and should be able to go into a check knowing they are squeaky clean. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Dot all of the Is and cross all of the Ts and you can still cop a fine for a minor mistake in recordkeeping or after an over-zealous loader puts a bit too much pudding on.

 

One contributing factor is our federal system, which has state-based transport authorities working for the state government’s benefit. The same issues apply to those truckies criss-crossing Europe, as they flit from country to country within the EU.

 

The next issue is the problem of ‘transit states’. Our transit state is New South Wales. An overwhelming majority of the freight moved on roads in Australia has to pass through NSW at some point. Quite often the state’s economy will benefit little from the passing of the goods from, for example, South Australia to Queensland, just a bit of road wear.

 

As a result the attitude seems to have developed – as is certainly perceived to be the case by many truckies – of getting something out of these truckies passing through, even if it is the odd fine.

 

The parallel with Europe is again very clear. A lot of road freight in Europe has to pass through France, Germany, and quite often Poland. French authorities have developed the art of pinging truck drivers for small offences for small fines to the point where it is widely regarded as a revenue-raising tactic.

 

Similarly, French customs will set up shop on the roadside knowing they will be able to catch enough offenders who are carrying untaxed fuel, or too many bottles of spirits or cartons of cigarettes across borders to justify the operation.

 

Germany uses road charging to top up its coffers, but did use fuel excise fines to do the job for many years. Poland goes through a similar process to get some revenue from passing trucks. A revenue stream which will be curtailed when the strike is in force.

 

Do Australian roadside enforcement stop us to make money? No, of course not, but the perception is there. This has grown over the years as drivers have worked hard to get everything about their truck and records right, only to get a fine for something seemingly insignificant. Will the introduction of a national enforcement operation solve this issue? Let’s hope so.

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Good News Bad News

Like all Federal Budgets, when it comes to the trucking industry it’s a bit of good news/bad news. Our elected government ‘giveth with one hand and taketh away with another’, usually in equal measures. This year seems to have been a little less painful than most.

 

The big ticket item is not about trucks at all. The commitment to the Inland Rail between Melbourne and Brisbane is all about putting money into the rail industry’s agenda. However, the step-change in productivity it will provide will feed into economic growth. What does economic growth mean? A lot more truck movements all over the country.

 

Of course, a lot more truck movements means a lot more infrastructure capable of handling the extra trucking operations will be necessary. There is some good news on this front with money going into Roads to Recovery, Black Spot, Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity and Bridges Renewal. Whether this is enough is debatable, but it is something.

 

Also on the agenda from Scott Morrison is some good news for small businesses, and we know the trucking industry is composed – to a large degree – by small businesses. The extension of the immediate tax write-down for asset purchases up to $20,000 is good news for small business, but twenty grand doesn’t get you much in the trucking game these days.

 

Again, Morrison’s forecast for the Australian GDP is good news. Despite an expected dip this year, the runes tell him the economy’s growth will increase next year and the year after that. Unfortunately, private investment in dwellings is expected to taper off considerably over the next three years.

 

This is not such good news for the trucking operators dealing with the construction industry. Luckily for them they are running flat chat at the moment, trying to keep up with a lot of infrastructure building taking place in places like Sydney and Melbourne. There’s also the Inland Rail coming on stream and a lot of that $8.4 billion will be going on transporting materials into and on sites.

 

There’s also $300 million to be spent on reducing red tape, something which trucking companies spend a lot of resources dealing with. However, this type of initiative usually sees the resources moving from one department to another to create a different kind of red tape somewhere else.

 

Can we sleep sounder in our beds tonight? Probably not. There is always a catch and trucking has got used to being at the back of the queue on many types of funding or initiatives. The feds normally just ignore us completely. Apparently, we don’t vote.

 

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Nightmare Scenario

It is the kind of situation many truck drivers dread, something which can play on the mind, the nightmare scenario of turning up as the first person at the scene of an accident. It is more likely to happen to a truckie than any other road user.

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Sometimes we are told to not rock the boat, to let sleeping dogs lie, especially on the subject of fatigue and its connected issues in Australia. When addressing the problem, there are two very large elephants in the room we need to acknowledge and also take into account.

 

For some, fatigue is a problem in the trucking industry and one which must be addressed seriously. For others, fatigue regulations are an issue which must be addressed immediately. Then there are all of the other interest groups with their own barrel to push and they can use the fatigue issue to do so.

 

The two elephants in the room are our history and our geography. These two cannot be denied and are central to all of the ongoing battles we are having over fatigue.

 

A large proportion of the people working in the trucking industry are over 55, approaching 50 per cent. This means we started our careers in an industry in which fatigue laws were ineffective and ignored. There were rules in place, but enforcement was almost non-existent and log book fraud was the norm. Multiple log books were easy to access and a simple solution for the driver looking to drive where they wanted, when they wanted.

 

The culture into which we were introduced was unregulated and breaking the law was regarded as just a part of doing business and also a prerequisite for getting employment. This gave rise to two effects. New recruits had to learn how to break the rules to get the job done and the industry was more attractive to those who like to break the rules. Hence a bit of an outlaw culture existed then and still has its echoes in the industry today.

 

At the same time, and despite the efforts of a number of yard drivers who seem to be trying to shift their warehouse when slamming into the dock, the major cities in Australia are a long way apart. They are not going to get any closer.

 

The major centres are a shift, two shifts or, in the case of Perth, three plus apart. The roads are getting better, but the speed limit remains at 100 km/h with little likelihood of rising. Add the usual hassles with loading, unloading and paperwork to the equation and the kind of hours regime we now have in place is just doable, for many.

 

Now, all we have to do is mix these two factors together and we get a workforce brought up in disregard for the rules mixed with the demands of a modern economy wanting goods moved from capital A to capital B. The outcome is the situation we have today.

 

Truck drivers have been pushing the envelope of fatigue and how to cope with it for generations and there is a core level of knowledge about doing the right thing, recognising fatigue and resting when tired. To get this to work effectively, and it does for many, the prescriptive rules disrupt the natural rhythms the drivers have come to rely upon. These were developed by drivers trying to survive while being pushed way too hard by operators and their customers.

 

Perhaps the trucking industry should take a good hard look at itself and decide whether it wants to be part of the solution or not. At root, this is a cultural issue and they are the hardest to shift. You just have to look at the problems of the major footie codes, created by young men with lots of money and access to drink, drugs and women. They are throwing lots of money at it, but the problems continue.

 

For trucking, we first have to acknowledge the culture and then decide how to change it. Then we have to ensure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

 

 

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Confusion Reigns

Looking around the trucking landscape, it is often difficult to think anything other than confusion reigns. As we seem to stagger from one minor crisis to the next there is never a clear way forward and there are a thousand different voices calling for the trucking world to head in one thousand different directions.

We do not suffer from misinformation, we are not being fed a line to suit someone else’s agenda. We are not starved of information, as the powers that be tell us each and every move they are going to make in the near future, but reserve the right to change direction in the future. It’s not even a matter of receiving mixed messages, it’s just a confusing array of information, supposition and lack of understanding.

The reason for this confusion is clear. we are part of the most diverse industry sector in the country. Not only are there segments divided by what we carry, but also by business model, business size, region, customer base, payment terms, contract – if any, the list goes on.

Not only do we not have a clear idea of who we are, neither does government. It does not have much of an idea of who it is talking to. The big multi-national players in the industry can afford to pay for the kind of lobbying which ensures decision makers are well aware of their position, needs and wants, and know if they are helping the big boys, or hindering them.

What about the rest of us? The RSRT crisis in early 2016 did show us how to get to the point where one message can get to the right people from the point of view of a large constituency in the trucking industry. At the time there were estimates of 30,000 to 50,000 owner drivers in Australia, we still don’t know.

Then there’s all of the players in between, all those mum and dad businesses who are happy with a few, or a few more, trucks and then those who have grown bigger than that into substantial family businesses. Then again, there are others who have grown to fulfil the needs of a customer or a community. These are all working in slightly different sectors, with their own issues.

If someone working for  a trucking company or running one were asked what they needed, they would answer from their specific point of view. Multiply that by 100,000 plus and you would get a spread of opinion, which would veer from one extreme to the other.

Similarly, when it comes to voting, very few of those engaged in the industry would decide which way there vote will be cast on trucking related issues. Why? Because no one has a clear idea on what trucking related issues look like.

In this confusion we have a few voices of rationality, working with some good intentions. Groups like the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and the National Transport Commission are trying to work towards a workable solution to the myriad problems which face trucking.

That being said, we are still paying a road user charge which pays for more than we are getting. We still have enough variations in regulations across state borders to put a major impost on the productivity of trucking, and ultimately on the productivity of Australia.

How do they get away with it? Because there are no overarching issues on which we can all agree, just lots of small diversions from one single idea of how to change things to make it right. Maybe there is no over-arching issue because it’s going quite well for everyone. Maybe not. 

There is a way to get what we want and make it clear to the people at the top what trucking needs. To get it there needs to be real well-informed and very honest discussion to come to some sort of reality check and clarification of the issues. We need to be somewhere where consensus reigns.

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Fight Like You Mean It

We need to fight like you mean it. A few of the little issues which have popped up recently should remind everyone involved in the trucking industry just what our place is in the psyche of the Australian nation. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good place, if you are looking for fairness and people doing the right thing by you.

No, as an industry, people involved in road transport need to know they are quite a long way down the pecking order. Even the largest transport operators have to shout very loud to be heard, and then may still be completely ignored by governments or other big businesses.

The industry as a whole has to go cap in hand both to those who regulate the industry and to the major customers, who are big enough to generate the kind of revenue a big fleet needs to survive in the contemporary business environment.

Hold on a minute, there is a major industry sector which constitutes 8.6 per cent of Australia’s GDP and is being ignored by government? Yes, even though we are nearly a tenth of the economy, we appear to count for very little.

Unlike an industry like farming, trucking is not concentrated geographically in a particular region. The farming community and its environment is the core support for a major political party, the Nationals, who happen to be in a coalition with the Liberals, and in power.

Trucking is not concentrated anywhere particularly and its people are not part of any significant demographic sector. The nearest thing we have to a tribe is probably general small business, a group seen to miss out on consideration at just about every turn.

The only trucking group with any clout in Canberra is probably the Transport Workers Union, it is a player in Labor Party decision making. The TWU also has a problematic and often divergent relationship with those running trucking businesses, as we saw in the battle around the RSRT last year.

So, we have a trucking industry which has paid more than it should in road user charge for a number of years and nobody can do anything about it. Trucks are going to be banned from a wide range of vital routes in and around the Port of Melbourne and be forced onto a toll road at exorbitant rates, just to keep the voters in a couple of the city’s suburbs from voting out their local members.

At the same time as this is going on a major stevedoring company, part of a global giant, DP World is feeling a squeeze from its global clients on its finances. It needs to charge more to its customers but it decides this is not a good idea. Instead, it decides it will start charging its suppliers of transport services, the trucking companies, for picking up the containers it has unloaded from its customers’ ships.

The trucking industry is trying to make a big noise about this and has managed to get a delay in the imposition of these charges, but there seems to be an inevitability about the way the charges will come in. The big company will have been able to bully trucking into accepting just one of the many impositions it has to suffer.

The trucking industry will have to fight every step of the way to get any improvement in its circumstances. We do not have any chance of becoming electorally significant any time soon. The government will always be able to ignore road transport and get re-elected. Lindsay Fox has been giving it a red hot go in the media recently, but is he going to get a real reduction in the tolls trucks have to pay around Melbourne? I am not getting my hopes up.

Fight Like You Mean It

 

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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?