Talking Turkey About Trucking

Making the chain

An operator commented to me this week about how he thought the trucking industry was ready for the future, but his customers weren’t. They still expect the world to go on as it has in the past, with cheap rates and operators queueing up for their work and being as flexible as possible to keep the work when they get it. Read more

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Zero Tolerance

The past few weeks have seen a number of events to make us feel good and paint the trucking industry in a positive light. The Scania Truck Driver Competition rewards drivers who do the right thing in a professional and skillful manner. The Apprentice of the Year is another young professional making their way in the industry.

 

Meanwhile, Toll put, what they call, the safest tanker set on the road in South Australia, being the responsible professional operation they clearly are. Other operations and organisations take a positive view and work to improve safety, efficiency and the trucking industry’s image to the general public.

 

Then some cowboy comes along and ruins the whole image. It’s not just the accidents where a truck is involved and poor maintenance, breaking fatigue laws or taking drugs is involved. There are also the daily smaller events with a truckie showing unnecessary aggression towards a car driver, abusing some poor schmuck who is just doing their job in the supply chain or just being inconsiderate to the rest of society.

 

The trucking industry is its own worse enemy. The problem is in our midst yet we tolerate others in the industry who are making us, as a whole, look bad. The worst offenders are known to everyone but we turn a blind eye to the major issues. The wrongdoers can get away with behaviour which makes us all look worse, because we do not fight against it at every opportunity.

 

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” is a quote from Edmund Burke, an Irish politician from the 18th century. However, it rings very true for a modern trucking industry on the other side of the world.

 

There is a strong community spirit within trucking and this stops us from dobbing in the worst offenders. A shortage of drivers who are good operators means we make allowances for unsavoury behaviour in the workforce.

 

Every gathering of trucking folk ends up with people telling war stories of getting away with bad behaviour, but we cannot afford to tolerate it any longer. The world has changed and our ability to monitor safety and behaviours has now reached a point where we have no excuse. With GPS monitoring and text alerts of incidents, we cannot claim a lack of knowledge.

 

Perhaps it’s time for the trucking industry, as a whole, to man up and take a stand against the cowboys.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

No load, high risk

This is just a small part of the presentation by Professor Mark Stevenson, Director of the Monash University Accident Research Centre in a talk to Federal MPs and Senators at Parliament House during the recent Freight Week campaign. The good professor highlights a major issue for the trucking industry which many people know about, but which is studiously ignored.

 

His talk on the safety issues surrounding trucking highlighted a number of central issues. There is a skill shortage and using inexperienced drivers triples the risk of a crash. ABS and cruise control both reduce the risk of an accident. You can also triple the risk of a crash by driving between midnight and 6 am.

 

Now, all of these are known risk factors and we are doing something about them. New fatigue laws have decreased overnight driving out on the open highway. ABS is coming in by dribs and drabs, and NSW are mandating stability control for dangerous goods in the future. The skill shortage is a tricky one, cleaning up the industry’s image and engaging properly with the community is our only hope there.

 

It’s the issue of the risks associated with empty running which are on my mind today. This is something so obvious, it’s beggars belief so little has been done to improve safety outcomes in the past twenty years. There is a simple solution which costs little and has been available for a long time, but has never been mandated up to now.

 

Recent changes in brake regulations does mean we are likely to see some form of load sensing fitted to most new trailers in the future. That leaves thousands of older dumb trailers out there on the road as we speak.

 

Anyone with experience of driving any kind of combination knows just how unpredictable an unladen trailer can be. Over the years drivers learn to compensate for this erratic behaviour and try and avoid the long black skid marks dotted along our highways. A skilled driver will almost always be in control in those situations and can get by without any load sensing. However, spend more then five minutes at a busy intersection in a freight area and you will soon see some trailer brakes locking up.

 

At the same time, we are being told about the increasing number of lower skilled drivers on our roads. This means the risks are increasing. Luckily for the other road users, many of the less experienced drivers work in the bigger fleets who have adopted safer trailer braking technologies to compensate for the lower skill levels.

 

There are still a lot of flat top trailers out there with drum brakes, without slack adjusters, which can be deadly in the wrong hands. Especially when empty.

 

In service brake testing concentrates on axle group braking and not how the combination is set up. Luckily, we do have some very experienced people working on our trucks and trailers who can set up a combination which will behave safely without all of the safety systems fitted, but surely we are running an undue risk by not mandating load sensing, at least, to ensure fewer mistakes are made.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

It’s still the infrastructure

Following on from looking at one example of a piece of infrastructure failing to meet a decent standard and limiting economic activity, the Peak Downs Highway, this week the ridiculous political infighting which blights infrastructure spending rears its ugly head. Meanwhile, our roads continue to crumble and road improvements take longer and longer.

 

Earlier in the week the decision by the Victorian Labor Party to consider not honouring future infrastructure spending commitments by the current Coalition Government in the state was announced. They may not build the second stage of the East West link which will vastly improve access across the city of Melbourne, and, importantly, offer an alternative crossing of the Yarra River for freight traffic

 

“The Victorian Transport Association has remained supportive of the delivery of East West Link Stage 1, but we know that this is only the first step,” said Neil Chambers, VTA CEO, after the announcement. “It is imperative that further East West Link connections to the Port of Melbourne precinct and the M80 are delivered if the State is to secure its long term economic vitality.

 

“Not only will East West Link reduce congestion and improve living standards, it will also boost the State’s interstate and international competitiveness, drive productivity and stimulate economic activity.”

 

This is a direct threat to the viability of economic growth in the area. They are playing politics with the future of the trucking industry. The first stage of the East West project will go ahead and solve some major commuting nightmares for the car driving public, but without the second stage the Victorian trucking community is left with an ongoing problem.

 

Access in and out of the port area, and across the city, is limited by the lack of an alternative to the Westgate Bridge or the Monash Freeway. Other routes in the area have created an ongoing battle between the local residents in Yarraville and Maribyrnong, and trucking companies. Creating more negative publicity for trucking and ongoing resentment.

 

This East West link is just one of many projects, dependent on both Federal and State funding, around Australia which are vulnerable to this kind of infighting between politicians and parties trying to get an edge in an upcoming election.

 

There’s the West Connex and North Connex in Sydney, both of which will enable freight traffic to grow without the city grinding to a halt caused by congestion. There’s the duplication of the Pacific Highway, promised back in 1989 and slated to be completed by 2020, as long as the politicians don’t use it as a target.

 

In South Australia, funding for the ongoing South Road improvement was in doubt as a squabble between the State Labor Government and the Federal Coalition Government lingers on. Meanwhile, congestion as a result of the project continues.

 

In the West, the Gateway WA and Freight Link projects are vital to keep the freight flowing in and out of the port and industrial areas. Meanwhile, the Great Northern Highway disintegrates under the pressure of a constant flow of oversize loads into the Pilbara, as the government is accused of weaselling out of a commitment to improve it.

 

The future prospects of the trucking industry remains in the hands of politicians who are not voted in by truckies, but by the car driving public who see trucks as a menace. Couple this with a short election cycle where, once in power, a state government will spend the next three years campaigning for re-election and you have a recipe for uncertainty in spending and a trucking industry somewhere near the bottom of the spending priority list.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

It’s the infrastructure, stupid

This week Diesel News found itself test driving a truck on the Peak Downs Highway from Emerald to Mackay in Central Queensland. This stretch of road seems to be a glaring example of exactly what is wrong with infrastructure in Australia and how these issues can limit future economic growth.

 

The Peak Downs Highway is not particularly long, just a few hundred kilometres. It runs South-West from the coastal city of Mackay into a hinterland, formerly known as an agricultural region. The situation changed with the start of substantial coal mining in the area as the resources boom took hold in Australia.

 

Queensland Rail developed a rail infrastructure to haul the millions of tonnes of coal being produced down from the plateau around Moranbah and Dysart. This bulk coal handling rail system gets the bulk product down to the coast, to the loading terminals and onto the queuing ships.

 

However, the massive amount of materials and equipment needed to make the coal industry happen did not make its way up to the coalfields on rail, it came by road, the Peak Downs Highway, to be exact. When the boom started the road was inadequate for the task at hand, many years later, and on the evidence of this week’s trip, it is still inadequate for the task.

 

Sections of highway around the actual mine sites themselves have clearly been substantially modernised. Presumably this is at the mining companies’ own expense. In areas where road spending is the responsibility of the state or local council, the road can be said to be, at best, very ordinary.

 

Narrow, and ageing, bitumen with very little run-off at the side of the road, features a few scattered overtaking lanes. The major incline, where the road drops from the plateau down to the coastal plain between Nebo and Mackay has a good road surface but is a steep grade with tight, narrow bends.

 

Last year, the RACQ commissioned an Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP) study of the Peak Downs. The road was assessed as being just a one or two stars (out of a possible five) for over 50 per cent of its length, with only one percent rated four stars.

 

“The Peak Downs Highway is the key route linking Mackay to the mines and yet more than half of it is well below an acceptable safety standard, no better than that on roads in developing countries,” said Greg Miszkowycz, the RACQ Senior Traffic and Safety Engineer, at the time.

 

The road is a B-double route, but that’s it. The sheer difficulty of getting freight from A to B in this area places a burden on the economics of running a business in the coal fields. The congestion and confusion when a wide load of up to eight metres comes through is a clear illustration of the limitation the infrastructure provides. All freight stops as the load weaves its way slowly along the highway.

 

There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure spending in the last year or so. The question we need to ask is just how effective the new money will be? The neglect of infrastructure spending over the previous decades means there are hundreds of Peak Downs Highways all over the country. Can we afford even a band aid for all of them, or are we going to see economic growth stymied, just at the point when we need it to kick in?

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Coming into the 21st century

This week I will have to trail down to my local Queensland Transport and Main Roads office and hand in my large unwieldy log book (sorry, work diary!) and pay another $20 for a new, redesigned one with a different layout and an unfamiliar look.

 

Basically, I will be swapping one outdated and oversized book for another. Nothing will change, except unfamiliarity might mean I will make some simple mistake when filling in the book and get pinged for the privilege. This will be to the delight of the enforcement officer and reinforce all of those uncalled-for negative stereotypes we have about roadside enforcement.

 

Next to my logbook I will have my phone. This is a handy sized piece of equipment with more computing power than was used to land man on the moon. It is nice and compact, easy to use, it knows exactly my whereabouts at all times and it has a clock.

 

It is also secure, my bank is willing to let me make transactions on it, transferring funds across the world. There are also millions of people all around the world who are designing ever more clever apps for it to help me organise my life, keep up with friends and also post stuff on this very website.

 

However, it is beyond the capability of the technology and way beyond the knowledge of the app designers to come up with a simple to use way of recording my working and travelling time in a truck, which can also be regarded as a legal document.

 

On the other hand, there are a queue of electronic technology companies lining up to provide me with a box in the cab which will securely record my every move and provide a foolproof way of ensuring I keep my truck driving well within the hours rules, while also giving the aforementioned enforcement officer an opportunity to fine me for something trivial, from the comfort of his own desk.

 

So, what is it these technology providers know, which the likes of Samsung, Apple, Sony and Microsoft can’t manage? Why do we have to put even more little boxes in our cabins to suit yet another set of difficult, Australia only, specifications? I might as well be carrying around a laptop sized book, as paying for yet another piece of, soon to be, redundant technology to be fitted onto the truck.

 

Is it all too hard? Some kind of transponder in the cabin, similar to the chip in your pay wave credit card could surely register when I get into the truck. A similar chip on my license could also identify me as being there. Surely an app on my phone could record and transmit all the other relevant information in a way I can’t tamper with.

 

All this information can be sent over the airwaves to the authorities. They can receive an alert when I have exceeded my hours. Most importantly, I have my phone with me anyway.

 

The world has changed. Maybe it’s about time someone told the NHVR, NTC and the State Road Authorities we are now in the 21st century and there is such a thing as a smart phone. We all have our smart phones, now we need some smart regulations.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

The lowest of the low

Trucking takes plenty of disparaging and deprecating comment from many quarters and people working in the industry are constantly reminded just how low their status is in Australian society. However, this week started out with the humble truckie being taken to a new low, being compared to a child molesting Catholic priest.

 

In talking to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal Pell came out with some outrageous slurs on the truckie. He was using the relationship between a truck driver and the truck owner as a comparable one to the relationship between himself, as a leader in the Catholic Church, and priests responsible for abusing children.

 

Not only is this preposterous, but also reinforcing the negative attitude truck drivers meet in many areas of their lives. The horrific stories coming out of the Catholic Church and its inaction when confronted with the facts of child abuse are, rightly, high on the agenda for Australia. However, the issue, along with Pell’s appalling analogy is not the main concern of Diesel News.

 

Our concern is, however, for the standing of the trucking community in the wider community. The news here is not good. A lone voice, that of ATA Chair Noelene Watson was the only one reacting to the slur from the truckie’s point of view. The rest of the mountain of criticism heaped on Pell was from the point of view of the anti-abuse campaigners.

 

The incident does illustrate a symptom of a long term problem, which the trucking industry has consistently failed to grapple with satisfactorily. The general public have a very low opinion of those working in trucking and the media reflect this, in the way news about trucks and trucking is reported.

 

If there is any news or comment around trucking in the national media it is inevitably negative and demeaning. There is no good news coming out of the trucking game, apparently. A selection of the news stories going around this week include a Bossley Park man driving a seriously defective truck loaded with Barramundi and Acacia Ridge residents wanting the rego details of B-doubles breaking a truck curfew in Southern Brisbane.

 

We don’t help ourselves and the small but well meaning events organised for Truck Week next week are unlikely to change many hearts and minds. Yes, we should go out and support these well meant events, which serve to bring the community and trucking people together. However, if we want to make a real change in the way the industry is perceived by the wider community, we need to make sure our house is in order.

 

Cardinal Pell has a very low level of credibility because he refuses to accept the wrongdoing of a large number of Catholic priests. If we want to get more credibility than him, we need to publicly accept there are wrongdoers in our community. There are elements in the trucking community who bring shame on us all, naming and shaming them, bringing some deep long term problems out into the light, is the only way to change perceptions of the trucking industry.

Talking Turkey About Trucking

Showing the love

Recently, I have been over in the USA and one figure which shocked me when I heard it was concerning driver turnover. We were talking to Brad Pinchuk, who is President of Hirschbach, a serious refrigerated transport company based in the far West of Illinois. The 600 strong fleet runs a very smart operation with the latest gear, mainly International ProStar with a smaller proportion of Freightliner Cascadia thrown in.

 

He was talking about driver retention and saying how improved working conditions meant this was getting better. He was proud driver turnover was improving, from 80 per cent towards 70 per cent. He was talking about three quarters of all their driver leaving each year. We think we have it bad!

 

Digging further, and after a lot of talk about improving working conditions and getting drivers home every two or three weeks, the average wage of a driver in the fleet turns out to be $40,000 per annum. Now, 40 grand will get you more in the US than it would in Australia, but is this not the heart of the matter?

 

The median wage in the US economy is $48,872, 20 per cent above the average paid to the drivers at Hirschbach. Brad admitted wages were too low and the company is looking at a substantial wage rise to try and increase driver retention. I am guessing it would still be no more than 20 per cent, bringing their drivers up to the median.

 

Retailing giant Walmart has bitten the bullet on drivers pay to try and improve the situation. Drivers in the fleet average over $76,000 a year, a much better sounding salary. The company employs 7,200 drivers and you can imagine the amount of effort handling a turnover up over 50 per cent of drivers would cost the enterprise.

 

Walmart’s turnover is dropping and smart companies, like Hirschbach, are following suit as far as they can. The issue is paying for it. For the major retailing network, generating the revenue to pay the wages comes from all the way along the supply chain, from the factory gate to the consumers’ shopping trolley.

 

Hirschbach, and hundreds of other fleets trying to do the right thing, only make profit on one small part of that chain. They are struggling to find a way of getting better rates to fund decent wages. The trouble is one we understand in Australia. Up the rates and some smaller ambitious mob come in with an undercutting rate and grab the work. The devil and the deep blue sea.

 

A solution, if there is one, is hinted at on the driver recruiting page on the Walmart website. It talks about no hand loading or unloading, excellent equipment, maintenance, uniforms and pay.

 

This is a good start, but there is something just a little bit simplistic about it. Drivers want more, they want to be treated with respect, to have their efforts recognised and be rewarded as such. The fleet which makes its drivers feel loved and respected is the one where the turnover is lowest.

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.