About a decade ago Lindsay Fox called for all heavy trucks to have a ‘black box’ installed.
The idea was that if the truck was involved in a serious incident, there would be a record of the recent truck operating data and maybe vision of the driver to see what condition he or she was in.
The idea had a lot of merit. Lindsay’s assumption was that someone would look at the crash data and learn from it.
Every two years National Transport Insurance publishes a detailed analysis of its large loss truck insurance claims.
The analysis is actually done by National Transport Accident Research Centre (NTARC), which is funded by NTI.
The report provides great insight into the safety performance of the heavy vehicle fleet, as represented by the sample of trucks that NTI insures. There were 852 incidents that were assessed for the 2020 insurance year.
About one in 400 trucks insured by NTI can be expected to have a large-loss claim per year. The classification of causes of the 2020 NTI large-loss crashes are shown in Figure 1.
The majority of the incidents resulted from errors made by the heavy-vehicle driver. NTARC recently issued a collaborative report with the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) about the correlation between roadworthiness problems and the likelihood of having a large claim incident.
NTARC is an important investigative body that is doing excellent work to inform the heavy vehicle road logistics sector about safety performance.
But it is not enough. The Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE) publishes a frequent report about road trauma involving heavy vehicles.
In the 2020 calendar year a total of 177 people were killed in crashes involving heavy vehicles. Of this number 31 (17.5 per cent) were occupants of the heavy vehicle cabin. For reference, the total number of road deaths in 2020 on public roads was 1,100.
Therefore, the heavy-vehicle-involved road trauma is about 17 per cent of Australia’s road trauma.
The trends over the past two years – see Figure 2 – show a significant increase in road deaths involving rigid trucks and static performance for other heavy vehicles.
Note that the BITRE data does not include work-place trauma. The NTI/NTARC reports do not identify the proportion of large-loss incidents that involve a fatality or serious injury. Furthermore, there is no tie-up with the BITRE report, at least not in the public domain.
The trends that are in evident in Figure 2 are gradually improving when the scale of the freight task is considered. According to NTI the number of trucks has increased by about 50 per cent since 2003.
The freight tonne-kilometres has increased 55 per cent. Despite this, the level of road trauma has decreased, until recently. So, maybe we can just wait for roads to improve, trucks to get safer and drivers to get better.
Sorry, I disagree.
Australia has a National Road Strategy and states and territories have strategies that are informed by the National Strategy.
The National Strategy is developed by The Federal Office of Road Safety. The latest Strategy document concerns the period 2021-2030. It notes that there were a significant number of work-related deaths that were not the result of collisions.
Thirty-one per cent of work-related fatalities were the result of falling from vehicles or being injured while loading vehicles.
Therefore, a significant level of logistics-industry trauma does not appear in the road-safety trauma reports.
The box shows an excerpt from the Strategy that concerns heavy-vehicle safety.
The Strategy is necessary and appropriate. But it is still not enough because detailed proposals need to be developed and justified. All the reports and strategies I have identified in this article have merit and are important. I think we could do better.
I propose that a Heavy Vehicle Safety Office be established within AustRoads that reports to State and Territory transport ministers. This office should obtain reports about specific incidents involving heavy vehicles from insurance companies, from emergency services agencies (Police, EPAs) and from state Work Safety Regulators.
Incidents might be defined as large-losses for insurers or serious roadside or workplace injuries. This Office should publish reports that classify and explain the causes of the incidents involving heavy vehicles and consider changes that could improve performance.
It would work co-operatively with the Federal Office of Road Safety to fill in the details of the National Strategy needed to get heavy vehicle safety to the next level.
Remember the adage that you can’t control what you can’t understand. The Heavy Vehicle Safety Office can be paid for from heavy vehicle registration charges.
It would soon pay for itself via a reduction in the number of safety incidents. It should report to transport ministers through existing regulatory structures.
The Heavy Vehicle Safety Office would have access to registration data and could also obtain specific information from vehicle suppliers to determine what technologies were on specific vehicles. The Office would not conduct site investigations and it would not be called into legal disputes because it would not publish details about specific incidents.
The Heavy Vehicle Safety Office would also be charged, for example, with monitoring the adoption of safety technologies on the road safety of heavy vehicles.
The Federal Strategy makes no explicit reference to Autonomous Emergency Braking or Lane Departure Warning technologies. The case for promoting these technologies probably exists in the crash data.
The Office could also develop proposals for improved work practices by operators and driver accreditation levels.
It could consider the details of a Safe Systems approach to workplace safety and try to explain what this means for industry.
For example, an urgent need exists to improve the career structure, training and status of heavy vehicle drivers, who are the most important element in industry safety performance.
Many of the improvements that are needed are outside the Federal Government’s domain for road safety.
The Heavy Vehicle Safety Office could provide the leadership needed for our industry to significantly improve safety performance.
Dr Peter Hart,
ARTSA-I Life Member