Dr Sarah Jones is the General Manager Safety and Compliance at Toll Group and she presented the result of some statistical work she has been doing using data from the whole Toll fleet. As the Asia Pacific region’s largest supplier of transport Toll Group has plenty of vehicles on the road. Every day the vehicles in the business travel the distance to the moon and back.
“When we first began delving into the implications of 2016, that is the primary duties of the Heavy Vehicle National Law, we realised we had to have a really deep and forensic understanding of our hazards and risks,” said Sarah. “We took a deep dive into all of the fatalities we have been involved with on the road, all those involving a Toll driver over a 10 year period.”
The study looked at all of the locations in which Toll operates. The aim of this survey was to look for patterns and anomalies in the data, to understand what was causing fatalities. Using this data, the plan was to develop practical implementable business strategies to prevent further fatalities.
There were 127 fatal incidents in the 10 year period, involving 147 fatalities. In the worst incident four young people were killed on a road in Queensland. In fact, most of the fatalities in the survey occurred in Queensland. The overall trend over the period was downwards, so some safety strategies were already being effective.
Looking at the figures, the most likely person to suffer fatality was the driver of a light vehicle, at 38 per cent. In the vast majority of cases, 77 per cent of all accidents, Toll was found not to be to blame for the incident.
“I went to the driver knowledge test in New South Wales,” said Sarah. “There are 364 questions in the test, of those, only one asks about light vehicles interaction with trucks. One in 364. There are a further two questions that are about traffic signage involving trucks. If you then look at National and State road safety strategies, they are all almost completely silent about how to share the road safely with trucks.
“In nearly 70 per cent of all fatalities in which Toll people were involved, the person driving the Toll vehicle or driving on Toll’s behalf was a contractor. Contractors to Toll die at a rate three times higher than people who actually work for Toll. This is not to say they are to blame. When I look at the level of liability between Toll employees and Toll contractors, they are about the same.
By using data from the whole Toll fleet, the research also found that nine per cent of the fatalities were due to natural causes, overwhelmingly cardiovascular in nature. To Sarah this suggests the company should look afresh at how it assesses drivers to be fit for work.
A Difficult Subject
“When I say suicide by truck I am referring to where a third party intentionally moves into the path of one of our vehicles and is confirmed as suicidality-ideated by the coroner, the police or an insurer,” said Sarah. “We found that 14 per cent of our fatalities are confirmed as suicide by truck. That figure is almost certainly an underestimate, I say that because coroners take a presumption against suicide.
“The standard of proof is very high. I also say that because there is evidence that individuals who want to save their family loved ones from the stigma and pain of suicide will utilise vehicular suicide as a way of discussing their intent.
“If I gauge the prevalence by the testimony of my drivers the figure is 20 per cent. Let’s take a moment to grapple with that, one in five s of Toll’s experience with fatalities is someone else using our vehicle and our driver to end their life. It is no understatement to say we have a cohort of drivers who are traumatised.
“When I initially hit on this figure of 20 per cent I thought it was a improbable. So, I went looking, vehicular suicide is hidden in the road toll. There are very few studies. I believe we are the first road transport industry provider to do an analysis. But, I draw your attention to the work that Adam Gibson did when he found 20.8 per cent work were strongly indicated for suicide.”
This conclusion suggests some of our thinking on road safety is misplaced we are used to thinking that all incidents of preventable. Yes, if the trucking industry works hard on reforming its culture even further, then lies will be saved and the overall road toll will be reduced. However, all of the culture change will still not make a change in general society, and the pressures within it, which would reduce the chances of someone using a truck as a suicide method of choice.