‘We’ve been treated like second-class citizens for too long’

second-class citizens for too long

Truckie Mike Williams, aka the Oz Trucker on Twitter, is well-known to Big Rigs readers as a regular feature columnist and popular host of the On the Road podcast. Below is an edited extract from his detailed submission to the Senate Inquiry into the importance of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry.

I have been a small fleet owner and therefore employer, an owner-driver and an employed driver.

I’ve operated in general, refrigerated freight and the bulk tanker sector where I’m currently employed.

I haven’t always been a truck driver, I was once a registered nurse and hold a degree in nursing as well as a graduate diploma in peri-operative nursing. That means I’ve stood at an operating table with a surgeon and assisted in repairing the damage done in road accidents. I’ve seen the distraught people in the waiting area. I’ve also buried friends who’ve lost their lives on the road.

My mate Peter Wagner “Dutchy” lost his life 21st October 2016 up near Moree. He’s not the only one. I’ve stood beside the graves of several friends and more than a few colleagues. I’ve been the next vehicle on the scene several times as well. Some of the sights, smells and emotion stay with me today.

My interest as an employed driver is a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Working for an employer that respects me and my skills, an employer who is prepared to work within the law and gives me well maintained equipment to work with. Fortunately for me I have all that. Many drivers don’t. That is why I have chosen to make a submission offering my unique perspective and try to improve the lot of those who don’t.

Some of the issues as I see them

1. There are hundreds of places suitable for a truck to park in and around towns. They’re marked off with no standing and no stopping signs usually right out front of that public toilet where we can’t fit in the public car park or the fast food joint or service station with a toilet. Added to that councils usually enforce one hour standing limits for trucks. There are nowhere near enough rest areas on the highways. It’s as simple as that. Safe parking on the highways and byways and especially in the towns and cities is in short supply. There aren’t enough facilities.

2. We have been treated like second class citizens for way too long. We deserve to be able to get a decent meal, have a shower and have access to a toilet. Trucks will be pulled up on off ramps, on the side of the road anywhere. This is exactly what’s happened in the US since they introduced mandatory EWD’s. I’ve always maintained the view that long distance trucks should be equipped at least with an engine off cooling system, a fridge, a microwave and a chemical toilet. That means larger sleepers. That means longer trucks. There’s a whole other discussion that leads from that. Our occupational health and safety only seems to be an issue when it comes to where we must stand while our truck is being loaded and what PPE we must wear no matter what’s going on. There’s a whole discussion that leads from this as well! If you’re forced to stay in a parking area with no facilities when you have to answer the call of nature what do you do?

They’re talking about an 8-minute grace period. Unless they put rest areas 10 minutes apart what’s 8 minutes worth? You can trip plan all you want but none of us has a crystal ball. When you get to your planned stop and there’s no space, what then? You have to move on. You can’t plan for accidents or road work. Unless you have some time available your EWD will record a breach. The inevitable check at some time down the track will dutifully highlight your breach for the officer.

It will have certainly notified your ops manager! How do you prove a parking area was full? My EWD tells me when my break is 30 minutes away and then again at 15 minutes. Bad enough when you’re on the open road looking for a rest area. Stress inducing stuck in traffic. Simple example, I had to pull into the breakdown lane coming out of Canberra one evening due to traffic. A 30 minute’s break on the side of the road. I had planned to go to a rest area 8km further up the road. In full view of the public. No facilities. If you’re needing to relieve yourself you have no option. What would have been my option if I was coming up to the mandatory 7-hour break? I’ve done my 14? It’s not pretty but it’s going to be the reality.

3. Now I want to point out the bleeding obvious. We are all working for the same reason. To make the money that pays the bills. Every time someone gets fined for anything that’s food out of the kids’ mouths, the house payment for the week, some other obligations not met. We all know the clock is always ticking. As soon as you press the start work button it’s game on. There are going to be situations out there where a driver sees the clock ticking down knowing that unless that truck gets to where it needs to be then a fine is guaranteed under an EWD system. It’s delusional thinking to believe a driver is going to just suck that up and keep sucking it up. There will be frustration. Frustration leads to poor decisions. The driver may push too hard in poor weather, fog, rain. Push too hard in traffic. Take risks that become more unreasonable as the clock winds down. Not everyone. But there will for certain be some. It may well be a recipe for disaster. I wonder if scenario has even come up for discussion? Remember this will be a frustration brought about by things that will happen that are beyond a driver’s control. The fact that drivers will be held responsible and the immediate “well if you planned your trip better” line will be the first thing to come out is completely unfair.

4. Drivers come from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the pool of experienced drivers seems to be shrinking. Drivers come to Australia from all over the world. That’s a good thing. Often they bring valuable skills and experience. The problem is these skills don’t seem to be properly assessed. Too many instances of drivers slipping through the system as it currently stands and having problems have become apparent.  We need more thorough training and assessments. Regular re-assessment and ongoing training.

There needs to be an accredited training system that addresses all areas required while operating a commercial heavy vehicle. All commercial drivers should be able to pass a comprehensive skills and theory assessment. These should be reassessed annually.

This inquiry is about finding potential solutions to the problems that are evident in the road transport industry. So, therefore I shall tender my opinion on what some of those solutions should be.

Rod Hannifey successfully campaigned to have green markers denote informal parking bays.

To address fatigue

1: A national set of guidelines that set out design and placement of formal heavy vehicle rest areas. This should be reviewed and have input from drivers who will use these facilities.

2: A national set of guidelines that set out the ability of local councils and road authorities to approve informal heavy vehicle rest areas. (The green reflector initiative for example as presented by Rod Hannifey)

3: Review of length laws to allow for longer prime movers allowing additional space for driver in cab amenities. This may also require increased steer axle weight limits. (Then make sure this get transferred into longer trailers!)

4: Abolition of trip money (cents per km) for employed drivers.

5: Requirement that all trucks on linehaul operations outside metropolitan areas have sleeping quarters as well as engine off cooling and heating.

To address economic issues

1: Payment for completed work be immediate on production of proof of delivery and invoice particularly for owner driver sub-contractors.

2: Recommended freight rates set and agreed to and published by industry. These should be adjusted with CPI and include a flexible fee for use to cover fuel price variations.

3: Detention/demurrage rates agreed to, enforced and published by industry.

To address on road enforcement

1: A system to grade transport companies. This should be publicly available.

2: Review of fines as they relate to drivers.

On the grading system I’m sure it does already happen. There’s no doubt that various authorities have detailed information on companies and collect data daily through checking stations like Marulan. The problem is drivers don’t have access to the data. Nor do the public as far as I know. If as a driver I could see the X company has a better score or Y company is always in trouble then I could decide on who I want to work for. Rogues wouldn’t stay in business for very long.

I’ve heard the suggestion that there should be a review panel for on road infringements for interstate drivers. This is fundamentally a sound idea and one I support. As a long distance commercial driver it’s not uncommon to traverse several states and many jurisdictions in a week.

If you’re unfortunate enough to collect an infringement you have the choice of simply admitting guilt and paying the penalty, or going through the process of contesting the infringement. Paying a massive $600+ fine can often be cheaper than defending yourself.

When as a driver you’ve got to get from where you live to where the case is being heard, time off work, lost money because hey you don’t get paid if the wheels aren’t turning on trip money, lawyers etc etc etc. you may also have to appear several times. This is a reality. These circumstances have a chilling effect on drivers defending themselves in court. There’s the added effect that insurance companies see a long list of minor traffic issues as a higher risk (you paid the fine so ergo you’re guilty) also the simple fact that drivers have families, mortgages, bills to pay. The short term financial consequences stand in the way of justice.

To address driver training and recruitment

1: National standards for ALL drivers. PROOF of experience and skills testing for moving up to vehicles of larger classes.

2: Establishment of proper training schools for ALL drivers.

3: Establishment of a Commercial Driver Licence requiring annual medical assessment and training for professional drivers.

It’s pretty straight forward. We universally accept that credentialing is the way to verify skills and experience. We have had several serious failures in heavy vehicle licensing. There are training organisations out there but the fact these failures have happened, to me, demonstrates there are issues with accreditation.

Some of these courses seem haphazard as well. There’s much more to operating a heavy vehicle than just steering it down the road. Compliance and everything that entails is often not taught. This is the area that needs attention.

A holistic focus on training that addresses all the on-road requirements is sorely needed.

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