Driver licensing: What’s wrong with our current system and how to fix it

Welcome to our second virtual roadhouse roundtable, where we gather expert industry panels to debate and discuss the biggest issues.

Hot topic in this instalment: Driver licensing.

Meet the panel:

Mike Williams

Veteran WA-based driver, regular Big Rigs columnist and host of the popular industry podcast On the Road.

Craig Nicholson

CEO of Armstrongs Driver Education in Melbourne, a leading RTO in the state for over 50 years and pioneer of changing the way truckies are trained.

Rod Hannifey

Long-time inter-state truckie, new President of the National Road Freighters Association and long-time advocate for improving driver safety.

Keven Mitchell

Experienced Sydney-based truckie who is passionate about lobbying for driver rights and workplace safety, as demonstrated in recent submission to road transport Senate inquiry.

Big Rigs: I think we can all agree that the current system of licensing heavy vehicle drivers isn’t working and hasn’t been for some time. Low-cost training organisations are churning out graduates, yet employers are still screaming out for skilled drivers. What’s wrong with the current system, and how do we fix this glaring anomaly?

Nicholson: The role of the heavy vehicle licensing should be to provide licence applicants with all the skills, knowledge, thinking frameworks and training in order to permit that applicant to have the capacity to drive a heavy vehicle in a safe and low risk manner. Given that heavy vehicle licensing services are consumed primarily by those wanting to enter the road transport or bus industry, heavy vehicle licensing should also adequately prepare licensing applicants by ensuring that they receive benchmark low risk training frameworks and adequate ‘behind the wheel’ (BTW) training in those driving environments that they are likely to be exposed to on a daily basis (urban and rural areas).

Mitchell: Craig Nicholson is spot on about this issue. Now the issue I have is that HC/MC licence courses don’t entail anything to do with logbooks fatigue and load restraints, these are a few key issues.

Hannifey: We are losing older truckies to the inflexible and over-zealous infringements that have nothing to do with road safety. Then where years ago you could take your kids and not only would they learn early and properly over time, they often picked up a passion for the job, but you can’t do that now with insurance and sites refusing you entry with children in the truck. Then with graduated licensing, we lost them in the early years and with all the tales and knowledge of the bad sides, we never get them back, so we are losing at both ends. Where companies could steal drivers from one another, that too has changed and few if any offered real on the job training then to gain the additional skills required to make them drivers instead of steering wheel attendants and less do now, claiming there is not enough money in the job to do so. So that leaves all of them having been short-sighted and now we not only have few joining the industry, we have more leaving.

Now we have a low skills base that does not provide the complete skill set needed, we have cheap and ineffectual training that gets new people a license without all the other skills, because companies don’t train drivers, they want them earning money and the real cost to get someone new in and give them all the skills means few can afford it and the government has kept playing and moving the guideposts for training and licensing without recognising truckies need far more than just a license.

Declining training standards have only increased the skills gap between newly licenced drivers and the needs of the road transport industry (low risk safe quality drivers). As a result, the road transport industry is unable to fully commercialise on the approximate 80,000 to 90,000 Australia wide newly licenced drivers each year, because those drivers are unable to meet minimum ‘driving experience’ pre-requisites imposed by industry as a protection against poorly trained, and unskilled, newly licenced drivers.

Williams: I maintain the view that there are some serious issues with the way training and assessment is conducted especially in what is NOT taught. As we lose drivers to retirement and simply being fed up with the continued crap of nit-picking enforcement, stagnant wages and sometimes outright wage theft, I believe we need to review our stance as an industry in what is acceptable. I believe too many influences exist that have little to no skin in the game. Things that could be solved with a stroke of a pen are left undone. Cam Dumesny from WA uses the analogy of fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. They started out with a solid cohort of well trained and experienced people but as the attrition rate grew they were replaced with people with less training as corners were cut to simply get bums in seats. This inevitably led to lots of minor incidents and injuries and eventually more serious issues, escalating as the training levels fell. We’re in a similar situation. We need to go back to basics and demand proper training and experience before a licence upgrade can occur.

Mitchell: Yeah, that’s the whole issue, the basics. At the depot I work in, I see trucks in and out and the simple basics of load placement restraints are an issue. Back-to-basics, grass-roots driver training has to be implemented .

What do we do next?

Hannifey: I can only see two real alternatives. One is we set up a course of at least three days that will cover all that is needed, it could be part of (then maybe five days) or additional to your license. Problem is what it will cost applicants, few will have the money and so do we then exclude possible drivers? The second is you get a licence and then companies either get paid to teach you up to the required level, or accept that without contributing something, e.g. the training, they will run out of “good” drivers, their crash rate and insurance will rise and they won’t make a single cent with trucks parked up without drivers. The next issue is then again, about money. Transport has very low margins, so not enough to spend on drivers that are not producing income they will say, but we could only be talking about one full week for most with some follow up as well. Governments are offering money for training, other countries are targeting those ex armed forces and women and getting a lot involved. There is work being done, but if some do the training, then others will steal the drivers once done. Who has another solution?

Mitchell: Three-day courses would work. It would be more intensive as it’s one-on-one, then bump it to five days, if you wanted extras. Like you said, money is the issue, and I doubt the government would want to help. How about senior operators going out to companies and doing assessments of drivers and upskilling them making sure they meet requirements, making sure they know their load restraints, and helping them understand logbooks?

Williams: I recall as a small fleet owner I employed a bloke who had next to no experience but he did have a HC licence and was from a trucking background. He was under 25 and this was an issue with insurance. I gave him a T600 to drive. Did a bit with him to make sure he was ok and learning. He was good in that he was willing to learn and asked questions.

Short story. After he’d been with me for about six months he said he wanted to get an MC. So I helped him get it. Loaned him one of my trucks, etc. He got his MC. A couple of weeks later he left. Rang me from Adelaide and told me. I doubt there would be one company who has trained drivers that this hasn’t happened to and wouldn’t keep happening to. Companies are more than happy to take the experience others have paid for.

There does need to be a truck driving school in my view. The course needs to be longer than a few days. It should be a couple of months. It needs to cover everything from actual driving and simulator time. It also needs to cover road laws and load restraint, weight distribution etc. There should be a section for truck types, tankers, flat tops, fridge vans, stock. etc. They all have unique features. I would like to see a collaboration between industry, government and insurance companies to make this happen. It could be funded in the same way TAFE and universities are funded. There could be a HECS contribution from the driver when they begin to earn. I believe this is the best way to turn out better trained drivers into the future.

Nicholson: In 2014 after a bench-marking trip to USA, I analysed and identified all of the skills, knowledge, techniques, and thinking frameworks that that gives a person the capacity to drive at low risk on urban and rural roads that meets the industry employment needs. As a base line, there are a minimum of 130 plus areas (skills, knowledge, techniques and low risk thinking frameworks) just for a heavy rigid low risk driving. We then developed a program call Driver Delivery Program (DDP), which we have delivering for and to the Victorian Transport Association (VTA) and other organisations over the last four years. To date we have put 275 new entry level drivers (NELD’s) through the DDP and have gained a real insight as to how long it takes as a minimum for a person with normal learning ability to achieve the capacity to drive a low risk. The following time frames are for the practical training excluding theory or in yard load restraint training or practice. HR auto 5 days one person or 8 days two people. HC, same time frames as HR course and MC 4 days one person and 6 days or two people. Add up to two days extra for non-synchro.

Williams: Craig, I’ve no doubt your ideas here are correct. Which only adds weight to the position I’ve held for ages. (As I detailed above). It begs the question, ‘Why, as an industry, do we tolerate the fast-tracking of anyone through the licence system?’ There is really only one answer to that. There’s always been a sink or swim attitude in the game. Because the margins are so slim no one wants to be the one to take the lead in training or increasing rates so they can afford to train. It’s a zero sum game. Everyone knows that many would applaud a company that set up a training program, spent the time and money to train people. They’d get all sorts of nice press etc. but then they’d be happy to poach the drivers whenever possible. Drivers are strange animals. Easily distracted by a Kenworth badge and a bit of bling and that’s cheaper than paying for and going through the pain of recruiting and training.

Nicholson: The heavy lifting needs to be done pre-employment so industry can afford to be the finishing school. Governments need to make the tough decision and mandate the licencing solution that produces employable low risk new drivers. At present, under the current Australian States heavy vehicle licensing regime, the capacity of most newly licenced drivers to drive a heavy vehicle in a safe and low risk manner is highly questionable and impossible when they are achieving licensing with a half to one day. Currently without question newly licenced drivers pose a risk to road safety and other road users. This is because: The objective of heavy vehicle licensing is not to produce a low-risk driver that meets industry driving needs and other road users’ safety needs. National competencies are easily negated and don’t measure low risk driving and don’t mandate a minimum number of hours to provide adequate ‘behind the wheel’ (BTW) training. Negative consumer perceptions about licensing and its function. Licensing is not meeting all stakeholder needs. NED’s haven’t been trained or had enough training time to be a low risk employable driver, Industry can’t employ them as they are not quality low risk drivers and the community moving around them are not protected by professional low risk drivers applying systems that help reduce the risk for them.

Hannifey: Most of the driving schools promise a lot, but in one day or three and I am afraid that from where I sit, they have been forced to meet the market and now do exactly the same as car driver education, they teach them the absolute minimum needed to pass the test. This is not a criticism of the trainers, it is a criticism of the market and the way the government and industry has been short sighted and greedy and dumbed down instead of skilling up. So to solve the problem. I can spend hundreds of hours writing a manual, but will never recover the time or cost and that might help us for drivers over the years and it might get a few more drivers on the road, but that is nowhere near enough. The government could fund such a thing (with industry consultation or don’t bother doing it) that all could then use and this would then perhaps over time provide a floor from which to improve. But that will take time to develop and then implement and in that time more people will die and the industry will be further maligned for the actions of those given a license, but not trained and or tested to do the job. So the next is to look at the MELT program in Canada. From the small bits I have read, whilst the cost is substantial, the lift in cost to enter has seen better applicants apply, some paying, some with government help and some through companies where they must sign on and agree to stay for two years and pay off their debt. We have some good but entirely separate and widely spread things that seem to work, we do not need to re-invent the wheel, we just need a base that provides a sound footing and is well above just getting a licence and then companies get paid to train up to for example, to interstate level, funded but overseen to excess, basically not watched every minute, or we must go full on training before let loose on the road. How do we get that to happen is the $64,000 question. Until we all agree and present a united front to government, I fear we will be having the same discussion for years to come and we as an industry will suffer the consequences in lives lost and being blamed for it each time. I wish I had the solution and hope someone does.

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