On the road to the next trucking tragedy

SMH, by Mario Christodoulou, 10 September 2017

Mona Vale brought the trucking industry to a crossroads. Four years – and many deaths – later, the pressures that caused the carnage remain.

For truckers, Mona Vale has become a byword for negligence. It’s been almost four years since a 40,000-litre fully laden tanker truck ploughed into the early afternoon traffic in Mona Vale on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, killing 73-year-old Philip Wem and his passenger Graham Holtfreter, 71. Images of the truck’s mangled hulk, blackened by fire and billowing smoke, are still used to illustrate the horrors of truck accidents.

Those who work in the road-safety industry like to say Mona Vale was a game-changer but the numbers tell a different story. Leading up to the accident, the long-term trend showed truck fatalities were decreasing but in recent years the numbers have been creeping upwards.

In 2013, the year of the Mona Vale smash, 175 people died in truck crashes on Australian roads. Last year that number had grown to 188. And 2017 is set to be high as well with around 90 deaths in the six months to June. During one 24-hour period in July, six people died on NSW roads in truck crashes. In Victoria, the number of fatal crashes has risen from 25 in 2013 to 39 last year, peaking at 48 in 2014.

Trucks kill a disproportionate number of people. Heavy trucks make up 2.4 per cent of all registered vehicles in Australia, account for 7 per cent of all road kilometres travelled and yet are involved in 16 per cent of road crash fatalities.

State laws designed to hold suppliers and contractors accountable have failed, with new laws due to come into effect in the middle of next year. Those laws, not for the first time, attempt to target the suppliers that profit from trucking. Fatigue and speeding are still the official causes of trucking accidents, but speak to drivers and they’ll tell you the real killer is pressure – pressure from the boss, pressure to keep your clap shut about safety and pressure to keep moving.

Truckie Adam Quinn: “If you speak up, you look bad.” Photo: Paul Harris

Truckie Adam Quinn: “If you speak up, you look bad.” Photo: Paul Harris

 

“Just keep driving”

Steve McCormack was dog tired. It was a Monday morning in mid 2016 the 54-year-old truck driver was hauling 45 tonnes of industrial shelving to Sydney from Tatura near Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.

It had been a rough night. Just outside Gundagai the air hoses on his B-Double broke. He had to camp out at a petrol station for around three hours waiting for a mechanic before jumping back in the cabin for the rest of the trip. By the time he got to Sydney he was sapped and approaching 14 hours behind the wheel.

“I was totally tired,” he says when he spoke to Fairfax Media last month.

He rang up head office and said he’d like a break. They asked him to push on.

“I was just about falling asleep. I said, ‘I’m going to bed, I’ve had it’,” he says. “I was told, ‘It’s just an extra 45 minutes, do that then go for a break’. I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m out of hours’,” he says.

McCormack has been working behind the wheel for 25 years. It’s the only job he has ever known. “I just love driving and I always did love driving.”

He says pressure to deliver on time and stay on the road is part of job. On the return trip from Sydney that Monday, his load came loose. Worried that tonnes of steel might spill onto the road, he rang the yard. His manager told him to open the curtain of his truck and check the load.

But if the load was loose, he would have been crushed.

“I said, ‘I am not opening this load for anyone’,” he says. “‘I am not taking the chance of it falling on me or falling on the road.’”

He was eventually stood down and fired. He believes he paid the price for speaking out about safety.

McCormack drove trucks for Leocata Transport but was paid by a related company based at the same address. Neither company answered questions regarding McCormack’s safety concerns, citing an unfair dismissal suit brought by McCormack.

McCormack’s unfair dismissal suit was recently settled on confidential terms.

Truck deaths in Australia since Mona Vale crash From October 1,

 

Drivers must keep logbooks of hours and rest times. Photo: Rob Homer

Drivers must keep logbooks of hours and rest times. Photo: Rob Homer

 

“Ways around every system”

Despite good intentions the laws of the land, don’t always reflect the rules of the road.

Long-haul drivers are required by law to record their driving hours and rest times in a logbook, but there are grey areas. When McCormack was sent on interstate trips he was given two sets of instructions. The first, printed on company letterhead, included the drop-off point at the end of his drive, usually in a capital city. The second was handwritten, scrawled on the reverse side of the job sheet – another set of drop-off locations not recorded on his logbook.

According to McCormack these were classified as “local jobs”, to be done in and around the capital city he happened to be in. They were not recorded in his log book, despite adding as much as three hours to his driving time.

He says these extra trips can be detected via the trucks’ GPS tracking system.

Leocata Transport did not answer questions about this practice.

“There’s ways around every system,” says another truck driver, Eduard de Cocq van Delwijnen, who has around 30 years’ experience and says he was fired from one job for complaining about overloading trucks.

Eduard de Cocq van Delwijnen.

Eduard de Cocq van Delwijnen.

He says handwritten logbooks can be easily sidestepped.

“What if you lose your logbook?

“Doesn’t mean you’re not on the road, it means you can use a day sheet until such time as you get a new one,” he says. “If you are running off individual sheets, what could be easier than cheating on your run sheet?”

Days of the first half of 2017 on which people have died in truck accidents.

Days of the first half of 2017 on which people have died in truck accidents.

 

Sooks and whingers

In 2016 a study by Macquarie University found 15 per cent of drivers felt they could not safely meet their delivery schedules and 10 per cent felt they could not refuse an unsafe load.

“There are too many companies and drivers out there willing to bend rules and turn a blind eye just so the job gets done,” said one driver interviewed for the study.

Some drivers felt they had no choice but to accept unsafe work. “You can, to a degree, pick your work and its safety environment, however the general consensus is that ‘there is the work, if you don’t do it then someone else will’ … I have mouths to feed,” said one respondent.

Adam Quinn, who has 30 years’ experience behind the wheel, says raising safety concerns can be a career-limiting move. “That’s part of the industry that hasn’t changed; if you speak up you look bad, you’re just having a sook,” he says. “There’s smaller companies where, if you complain, they’ll say straight out, ‘F–k off, I don’t need you, I’ll get another driver’.”

Adam Quinn in the cabin. Photo: Paul Harris

Adam Quinn in the cabin. Photo: Paul Harris

The trucking industry is dominated by medium to small operators. Around 35,000 drivers work for small companies who make up around 90 per cent of the industry and receive between 75 to 85 per cent of industry turnover. These companies might never win a contract with Woolworths but they can carry their produce via complicated subcontracting deals.

When things go wrong, authorities can struggle to unstitch these complicated arrangements.

In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, July 14, 2011, on a stretch of the Mitchell Highway near Bathurst, a loose steel beam fell from a truck and ploughed into a light vehicle, killing the driver, before going on to hit five other cars causing serious injuries.

The truck accident was found to involve six different companies, organised through a chain of phone calls to subcontractors. There was no process of induction or communication to confirm the drivers’ skills and no research to confirm how best to secure the load.

The driver had breached his rest-hour limits and was charged with 20 offences including manslaughter and negligent driving. The trucking company was fined $16,500 while the company’s director was fined $900.

Unions say incidents like these show it’s still drivers in the firing line when things go wrong, leaving the system and the people who put them in harm’s way – off the hook. “The driver loses their livelihood yet the CEO and client just makes more profits without any serious consequences,” says national secretary of the Transport Workers Union Tony Sheldon.

Trucks on the Monash Freeway in Melbourne. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

Trucks on the Monash Freeway in Melbourne. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

 

Chain of responsibility

In 2014 the states, except the Northern Territory and Western Australia, enacted new legislation to tackle truck safety. Known as “chain of responsibility” or COR laws, they were aimed at making everyone in the supply chain responsible for safety. But the laws have been ineffective, letting big-name suppliers off the hook.

“When the truck leaves the yard, nine times out of 10 they don‘t give a rat’s arse,” says Western Australian senator Glenn Sterle, a former truck driver who has championed driver safety. “The squeeze on the supply chain starts at the top.”

In practice, COR laws have proved too prescriptive and easy to avoid for large companies. In November 2014 Transport for NSW found the laws had serious shortcomings and disproportionately punished drivers and trucking companies. “The current legislative approach significantly restricts the circumstances in which a party in the chain, other than a driver or an operator, can be prosecuted,” the state transport department said at the time. The agency said maximum penalties – $6600 for an individual and $33,000 for a corporation – were not acting as a deterrent.

 

Deaths in truck crashes 2008-2014 - Infogram

In one case, a Volvo rigid truck carrying empty gas cylinders rolled near Mudgee in May 2011.

The cylinders struck an oncoming Mazda, killing the driver. The supplier was fined $5500 and the trucking company was fined $24,750.

Transport for NSW were critical of the outcome:

“There would be no deterrent for a larger business let alone a national or global entity.”

The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, which created the laws, says new legislation due to come into effect next year will make it much harder for companies to wriggle out of their responsibilities. Penalties will increase to $300,000 for individuals and $3 million for corporations, with five years’ imprisonment for drivers.

“Under new legislation anyone in the supply chain who influences the safety outcomes of a heavy vehicle operator has a responsibility,” says the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator’s executive director of Safety Geoff Casey.

Casey admits current laws have had their problems. Some companies have even tried to contract their way out of their safety obligations by forcing subcontractors to pay for fines and legal costs arising from safety breaches. “I’m aware there have been cases. Primarily, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, some will try and shift the risk to someone else,” he says. “But the new laws specifically address the matter – you cannot contract the obligations away to another party.”

A truck on the Hume Highway. Photo: Andrew Quilty

A truck on the Hume Highway. Photo: Andrew Quilty

 

Getting behind the wheel

On February 5, 2016, the driver of a B-Double stopped dead in the northbound lane of the M5 motorway in Kyeemagh. His truck was 20 centimetres taller than the M5 East Tunnel and he knew he wasn’t going to fit. But there was a problem: he didn’t know how to reverse.

The fiasco made the nightly news and was debated during a Senate inquiry which put the spotlight on driver training.

Truck crash deaths by state  January 2013 - June 2017 - Infogra

Most learner drivers will tell you, to get a regular licence you need to log at least 120 hours of supervised driving. But to get behind the wheel of a heavy vehicle of up to nine tonnes, if you have had a standard driver’s licence for two years, you can get away with a day’s worth of training after passing a knowledge test.

For $1300, Jag’s Truck & Bus Driving Training School in Sydney offers heavy vehicle accreditation in a day. The school’s website promises that you can “Drive BIG-Earn BIG!”.

Training takes about nine hours and the final assessment is included in the price.

Jag’s school did not respond to questions for this story.

The driving school’s web page is littered with comments from prospective drivers looking to get trained.

“I wanting b double licence I have car licence an I back trailer up driveway very straight I not need lessons just licence I earn big! Also I need truck with sleeper for friend,” reads one comment from 2014.

Another, from 2016 reads: “hello please my name is sanjit and i drive big b double 700 hp single drive daf … I want to make sure i don’t tip it over or run late cos [my boss] will not be happy if i do. He will send me back home.”

A Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) spokesman said Jag’s Driving School is not an accredited training provider for heavy vehicles but uses assessors who are accredited. Across the industry, RMS cancelled the accreditation of four assessors last year with a total of seven assessors cancelled since 2014.

During the 12 months to August 31, RMS received 31 complaints relating to heavy vehicle assessors.

Jag’s is not alone in offering one-day courses. A plethora of companies advertise single-day training courses for trucks up to nine tonnes.

Nationals Senator John “Wacca” WIlliams, who is on the Senate Committee examining road safety, drove trucks for more than 30 years before joining parliament.

“To me, that seems a bit brief,” he says.

“I would prefer to see an L plate on the back and someone in there with them.”

“When we learned we were on country roads, there was no one around. But when you are in congested traffic in a nine-ton rigid in a city you have to have pretty good knowledge of the width of your vehicle.”

Former Sydney fleet operator Amar Singh says he doesn’t allow some drivers behind the wheel based solely on their choice of driving school. “Some of the new drivers that you get, I will ask ‘Have you driven trucks before?’ They say they are licensed but when you put them in a truck they can’t do anything,” he says.

Tanker trucks, like the one that crashed in Mona Vale, are known jokingly in the industry as “bombs on wheels”.

JL Pierce is a NSW fleet operator that specialises in tanker trucks. In February this year, during an unfair dismissal case brought by a former driver, a senior trainer at the company admitted to filling out safety tests in place of a driver, with no consequences. He was asked in court whether he would say this was a “serious issue”.

“Yes, I would,” he told the court.

JL Pierce did not respond to questions.

Adam Quinn: “Everyone is just too impatient.” Photo: Paul Harris

Adam Quinn: “Everyone is just too impatient.” Photo: Paul Harri

“I’m disgusted with my own industry”

“I’m a truck driver that is kind of disgusted with my own industry … I have mates I don’t speak to because they are on ice,” says Adam Quinn.

Quinn has been driving trucks since he was 17. Now, aged 50, he says there’s not much he hasn’t seen – including two fatal car crashes. He says drugs are still a big issue. “I’ve got a friend that’s just been taken off the road for seven years, because of ice – it just caught up with him, the sad part is this gentleman is 65 years of age.”

Quinn was on the road on an autumn evening in November 2004 when a six-year-old boy died in an unsolved hit-and-run on the Hume Highway. During the investigation one suspect was found to be driving a truck despite a 20-page driving record with more than 60 road offences – including careless driving, negligent driving and high-range speeding offences – stretching back to 1981. In the year of the accident, he had been caught speeding six times.

In a police statement the suspect admitted to regular drug use. “Due to pressures from my boss I would often have to take speed – methamphetamine – in order to keep my schedules and to stay awake while I was driving … In 2004 I was buying on average one gram of drugs each week and depending on its quality it would usually last me the whole week, being five trips up and back to Sydney,” he said in a police statement.

He told police he had not taken drugs on the night of the accident.

Geoff Casey, with the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, admits there is nothing stopping a trucking company appointing a driver with a history of road or drug offences. Due to privacy rules it is impossible to forcibly obtain a copy of a driver’s offences without their consent.

But he says there is nothing stopping a company requesting a copy of a driver’s criminal history.

“It doesn’t prevent an operator requiring a driver to provide their history and if the driver refuses to do so, that should be indication as to whether you should hire that person.”

Quinn says he can’t help but get emotional when recalling the deaths he has seen on the road. He believes the trucking culture has fundamentally changed over his 40 years of driving and respect between truckies and other road users has collapsed.

“Our world is getting to the stage where no one cares.”

“Everyone is just too impatient.”

On a Friday morning in March last year, Jack Weston, the grandson of Graham Holtfreter who died in the Mona Vale crash, rose to address the Downing Centre District Court in Sydney, examining the actions of the driver involved in the crash. He pleaded with the court to hold people accountable for his grandfather’s death. “Please, please listen to me because sometimes accountability turns pain into peace,” he said.

The driver of the Mona Vale truck, 47-year-old guilty Shane Day was found guilty of negligent driving, after a jury found him not guilty of the more serious charge of dangerous driving occasioning death. He was handed a 12-month suspended sentence and had his licence suspended for two years in March last year.

A year after the accident Day’s employer, Cootes Transport, was fined $50,000 by a magistrate for operating unsafe vehicles.

Weston later said the fine “doesn’t give us any peace”.

Since the Mona Vale crash, 11 trucks have been involved in accidents along the same stretch of Mona Vale Road. Two involved serious injuries.

Deaths per 10,000 vehicle registrations - Infogram

Click here for the original article.

© 2016 Transport Workers' Union of Australia.
Authorised by Tony Sheldon, TWU National Secretary, 388-390 Sussex St, Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia.