Jan 28, 2019

Opinion Piece – It’s Time for Action on Highway Safety – Herald Sun – Monday, 28 January 2019

Motorists know the feeling: you are driving along the highway at the speed limit when a semi-trailer appears and begins tail-gating your vehicle.

It’s a scary feeling even if the truck driver is trying to do the right thing.

This is a common scenario on Australia’s highways, particularly at this time of year when Australians head up and down our coasts for holidays.

There’s a likely explanation for the impatience of some, but by no means all, truck drivers — some employers impose unrealistic deadlines for the delivery of loads, forcing them to speed to perform their duties.

This makes trucking, already a dangerous job, more dangerous than it should be; more dangerous not just for the truck drivers, but for those who share the road.

In 2019 this is unacceptable. We can do better than maintaining a transport system with baked-in encouragement for drivers to cut corners on safety by speeding, not taking rest breaks or, even worse, taking drugs to stay awake.

It wasn’t always like this.

In 2012 the former Labor Government attempted to remove incentives for truck drivers to cut corners by creating the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal.

Its job was to set pay levels and conditions that would allow drivers to earn a fair living without having to adopt dangerous work habits.

The tribunal was designed after extensive consultation with trucking companies, the Transport Workers Union and safety experts who agreed to strip incentives for dangerous behaviour out of the system in the public interest.

But just before the 2016 federal election, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull scrapped the tribunal after complaints from some truck owners.

Anxious to exploit ideology to support his re-election, Mr Turnbull characterised the tribunal as some sort of trade union conspiracy, rather than what it was – a road safety mechanism that had been developed in consultation with industry and, importantly, that arose out of a unanimous, bi-partisan parliamentary report “Burning the Midnight Oil’’

His rash decision, made in the heat of an election campaign, ignored the life-and-death issue of road safety. It placed minimal value on the people who share the roads with truck drivers – Australian motorists and their families.

Heavy vehicles make up three percent of vehicles on our roads. But they are involved in more than 16 per cent of fatalities. And when cars and trucks collide, the occupants of the cars are more likely to suffer death or serious injury because, obviously, their vehicles are smaller.

Mr Turnbull’s decision might have been more palatable if he had replaced the tribunal with some other mechanism to address the proven link between road safety and pay rates for truck drivers.

But nearly three years since the abolition of the RSRT, the Coalition has not come up with any alternative plan on trucking safety.

Road safety should never be conflated with political ideology to win votes. It must be beyond politics.

Federal Labor will re-examine this important issue should we form a government after this year’s election. It’s a difficult policy area, but the principle of safe rates should be supported by industry, motoring organisations and the broader community.

We could make an almost immediate improvement on road safety by refocusing the Federal bureaucracy on existing road safety programs left to languish by the Coalition.

One of our most successful road safety programs is the Black Spot program, which delivers safety upgrades to intersections or stretches of road where there have been traffic accidents involving death or serious injury.

It’s a practical, sensible program that enjoys bipartisan support.

However, the Morrison Government’s administration of the Black Spot program has been a disaster.

In its first five Budgets, the Government has announced $390 million for the program. But the most recent Budget update shows that during that period the Government has in fact delivered $290 million – $100 million less than promised.

Based on 2012 research conducted for the Department of Infrastructure, the average cost of Black Spot projects is about $157,000. This means that if the Coalition had delivered the funding it announced in its own budgets, it could have completed more than 600 safety upgrades to traffic black spots around the nation.

The same is true for the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, created by the former Labor Government to build more rest stops, decoupling bays and parking facilities for interstate truck drivers.

In the past five years the Government has announced $290 million for the HVSPP, but spent $157 million.

That’s not good enough.

There’s a crisis in project delivery that requires immediate attention.

Safer roads should be an objective which unites not just the Parliament, but the entire nation.
This piece was first published in The Herald Sun today.