Facts are stubborn but statistics are more pliable, said the master of the great one-liner, Mark Twain. That’s why when it comes to truck accidents the figures might help, but they don’t really tell the story. They do tell us that truck driving is the most dangerous industry in Australia – by a factor of ten. They also tell us the cost of these deaths to the country is about $2 billion per year. And that in the 12 months until June last year, there were at least 210 fatal crashes involving trucks.
But if you really want to get a feeling for the pressures facing Australia’s truck drivers, it helps to hear it from the driver’s own mouth. Andrew told the NSW Industrial Commission: “When I was required to perform excessive hours I would sometimes experience hallucinations. I would see trees turning into machinery. On one occasion I held up the highway in Grafton while waiting for a truck which was not there to do a three point turn (I was radioed by drivers behind me asking why I had stopped).” Or Robert, who has driven the Pacific Highway for 22 years: “I have been sacked for refusing to perform a load on a b-double, which would have made the load illegal and oversize. I had asked the same client for two weeks off to have my steer tyres replaced. They said ‘no’ but then I had the drivers’ side steer-tyre blow out at 100 km/hr when I was fully loaded. It is sheer luck no-one was killed.”
There have been countless parliamentary enquiries over more than a decade which have all come to the same conclusion: the nation’s truck drivers deserve ‘safe rates’. This simply means a fair wage that would remove the incentive for drivers to resort to unsafe practices behind the wheel. Almost 30 percent of owner drivers are paid below the award rate. Many say low earnings are forcing them to compromise on repairs and maintenance.
As Australian’s queue at the check-out, most wouldn’t give a thought to the vast fleet of workers that bring the products to our supermarket aisles. Visitors to Australia marvel at the quality and variety of produce that lands each day on our shop shelves. But it is the truck drivers who drive often long distances through the night to make this happen. The trucking industry is highly competitive and there is ample evidence to show that under-cutting is commonplace and that drivers sometimes speed and resort to drugs to meet deadlines. Reports also show some drivers ‘fiddle’ the log books. Says one: “I was doing a run from Darwin to Toowoomba. They told me to load (unpaid) six hours before the log book would allow. I was told that was the deal – take it or leave it. I had to take it.”
The Federal Government believes every worker has the right to a safe place of work. In the case of truck drivers, it is not only their lives at stake – all of us share the same roads. The statistics here do tell a powerful story. While heavy trucks account for 2.5 percent of all vehicle registrations and 7.5 percent of vehicle-kilometres travelled, they are involved in 15 percent of all fatal crashes. The Government’s official record-keepers, the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, say speed, drugs, alcohol and fatigue are often to blame.
Last week, a House of Representatives committee met to examine a Bill that I tabled in the Parliament last November which will bring safety and fairness to the daily lives of the nation’s truck drivers. The committee includes representative from all parties and will report back by the end of the month. It is my fervent hope that the Parliament will support this piece of commonsense, fair and long-overdue legislation.
If the law is passed, a road safety remuneration tribunal will be established with powers to intervene and set conditions that ensure safe driving practices. It will begin work on 1 July 2012 and will include members from Fair Work Australia along with independent work, health and safety experts.
One of the first things for the tribunal to address will be waiting times. And here is one final statistic. It is not uncommon for drivers to wait up to ten hours to load and unload their truck. This waiting time is not paid and it can’t be classed as an official rest break, further forcing them to speed and drive tired to make up time. I don’t think any Australian would think this was fair. Or safe.