Record diesel prices, heavy-handed fines for minor paperwork errors, deteriorating health, and being forced to spend hours away from your loved ones while trying to make ends meet. Any of those reasons – along with a fair few related to the pandemic – are conspiring to force drivers from the cabs in increasing numbers
Companies are desperately short of experienced truckies and many fleet owners are at their wits’ end about how they are going to get more bums on seats.
At the time of writing, when we inputted the words ‘truck driver’ into the job search site Seek.com.au, there were 21,700 roles available.
Below we speak to two of the drivers who have cried enough to find out more. We also ask them what they think can be done to stem the tide.
‘It feels like workplace bullying’: Adam Bollinger
Adam Bollinger, 51, had never had a logbook fine in more than 25 years of driving all over Australia before he was pulled over at Marulan, NSW, recently.
The experienced fuel tanker driver’s not denying he went over his 24 hours by 1.5 hours, the result he said of his boss at the time changing plans at short notice.
But despite his clean driving record, there was no quarter given by the Transport for NSW compliance officer.
“It’s a fairly major breach, and I understand that, but I said to the guy, ‘Can’t you cut me some slack?’. ‘He just said, ‘Na, I’ve got to fine you for it’, so I was a bit disappointed after 25 years with a pretty good track record,” said Bollinger.
The final straw for Bollinger came soon after that $1151 fine (along with three demerits), when he was snapped following too closely behind another truck at Tomingley, resulting in a $1471 fine and four more demerit points.
“To get $3000 in fines in a fortnight, that was enough for me to say, ‘Yes, it’s time to leave the industry’,” said Bollinger.
“It feels like workplace bullying and harassment sometimes. I understand that these guys have a job to do, but when you drive into a weigh bridge, you feel guilty until you prove yourself innocent, whereas everywhere else in society it’s the other way around.”
Bollinger, who is now based in Mudgee, NSW, hasn’t stepped away from driving completely, having taken up a role as an aero refueller, gassing up helicopters for the fire season.
But he can’t see himself going back to his old routine any time soon.
Bollinger said he’s never seen compliance being enforced the way it is this year, and in such numbers.
He cites the example of pulling into the Pine Creek RMS inspection station near Coff’s Harbour a couple of months ago.
Bollinger was asked to hand over his logbook, licence and BFM certificate, but that was all.
“They didn’t even want to walk around the truck. They’re just hammering guys for logbook infringements and that needs to be addressed.”
Bollinger also believes that the chain of responsibility laws are failing drivers because of what he sees as systemic ‘loopholes’ that allow some parties to sidestep their legal obligations.
“There’s still only person who signs anything at the end of the day, and that’s the driver,” he said.
“Unless you’ve filled out a journey management plan and signed it saying they’ve ensured you’ve got adequate time to legally do the job in the legal timeframe with the adequate rest breaks, you’ve got no leg to stand on in court but your own.”
Bollinger said regulators also need to sit “at the table” with more organisations, “not Lindsay Fox”, and get feedback from more owner-drivers.
“The guys who have been in the industry for 50 years, and ask people with experience holding the steering wheel about the best way to regulate the industry.”
‘They treat you like a criminal’: Steve Brazier
A disillusioned Steve Brazier only stepped away from the industry about a month ago after 35 years working as either a mechanic or truckie to now run his own motorcycle repair shop in Gloucester, NSW.
Brazier started out as a mechanic but reckons he’s spent just as much time behind the wheel as he has on the spanners, fast-tracking his experience as an interstate truckie working for his parents’ Newcastle-based freight company.
He stepped back from interstate about three-and-a-half years ago because of all the logbook “bullshit”, that included his own run-in with authorities for an “accidental” mistake while carting army bridges to Kyogle.
The magistrate let him off, but Brazier said the experience left him with a sour taste he just couldn’t shake.
“They got me for driving 15.5 hours in a 24-hour period, but the way they carried on, it was like they treated you like a criminal,” said Brazier.
“They got me out of truck [at the weighbridge], walked me over to the office and it was like they were going to call the highway patrol to come and arrest me the way they were carrying on.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had a massive passion for the transport industry, but just lost interest in it.”
Brazier said running his own truck repair shop also took its toll, chasing slow payers and working 24/7 up to 20 yours a day at times because he knew how important it was for his customers to keep the wheels turning.
“It burnt me out, there’s no two ways about that, but that’s just part and parcel of being in the transport industry,” he said.
“I think it’s more taxing now just because of the sheer concentration you have to have driving the truck now.
“You have to make sure your logbook is right, and you’re always worried about whether the weighbridge is open.
“You know how you feel like a criminal when you get pulled up for speeding by the cops? Every time you get pulled into a weighbridge, that’s exactly how you feel.
“You feel like you’re going to get stitched whether you’re doing the right thing or not.”
Brazier said he doesn’t know any other job in the world in which you have to worry so much about doing the right thing.
With spiralling fuel costs factored in, he said he despairs for the future of the industry now unless the government steps in and starts looking after drivers more.
He knows of many owner-drivers who have had a gutful but are only still going because they feel like they have no other option, other than to drive for one of the bigger companies.
“But who wants to do that when you’re constantly watched on camera and there are GPS trackers in the trucks?
“We used to have the freedom to do what you wanted while you were doing our job. As long as you were doing your job, everyone was happy.”
Brazier fears now that the only way forward is if big companies, like Toll and Linfox, stand up to the government and say, “Enough is enough, if you don’t change then we’re going to stop running.
“They have all the grocery stores and fuel sewn up and that’s where they’re going to hit everyone and that’s where they need to do it.
“It seems like the normal owner-driver doesn’t have that option anymore. No one wants to listen to the owner-driver.
“But it’s going to come to the point where it has to change, there’s no ifs, buts or maybes about it.
“It’s just an industry that’s constantly pounded by bullshit from the government. It has been for years and years, but it’s just worse now than it ever was.”