Transport safety: getting better, but old challenges remain

The three leading causes of crashes involving heavy vehicle are fatigue, inappropriate speed and driver error, according to data from ‘large loss’ events (where damages come to more than $50,000) held by Australia’s leading transport and logistics insurer, NTI.

In this article, Adam Gibson, NTI’s transport research manager, and Julie Russell, director of Russell Transport, discuss the data and give an operator’s view on safety and culture.

Fatigue: still the number-one danger

There’s no hiding the fact that fatigue remains the number-one cause of large loss incidents in Australia. The good news is that it’s trending downwards, from nearly one-third (27 per cent) of large losses in 2008 to less than one in ten (8 per cent) in 2022.

“Transport is one of the most dangerous industries in Australia,” Adam Gibson said, “and fatigue remains one of the leading causes of incidents.”

Russell and Gibson agree that fatigue reforms have helped and that constant communication is critical to driving the message home.

“It’s really important to have laws and processes in place, but without awareness, you can’t drive change,” Russell said.

“So, for us, the laws created awareness and opened the door to conversations along our supply chains. We could talk to our clients about delivery times.”

Gibson agreed, mentioning a transport operator that told its service station clients it wouldn’t deliver fuel from 10pm till 4am.

“All but two of the sites said, ‘No worries’.”

“And that strategy reduced their risk exposure,” Russell added. Helping drivers better prepare for work and using fatigue monitoring technology can make a big difference – once drivers have seen the evidence. That evidence might include telematics data or video footage of a drowsy driver.

The key, she said, is “raising the awareness and the conscious level of thought” for drivers and operators alike “because the responsibility isn’t just on the driver. It is also, I think, on us as a business.”

NTI’s Adam Gibson says fatigue reforms have helped and that constant communication is critical to driving the message home.

Inappropriate speed: it’s not about the speed limit

Most drivers don’t break the speed limit – ‘inappropriate speed’ crashes usually occur well below the limit, on curves or where road conditions have changed.

Crucially, the rate of inappropriate speed crashes is coming down. But they’re a concern because “it’s the same crash happening over and over again,” Gibson said, “and that makes it easier for us as an industry to address.

“Eighty per cent of these crashes are in the 35 to 80 kilometres per hour zone. They’re single-vehicle rollovers. Imagine an off-ramp from a freeway, a long, sweeping 180-degree bend. And halfway or maybe two-thirds around the bend is a B-double lying on its side.”

In most cases, the trucks involved were doing 35 or 40 in an 80 zone.

“It’s not about breaking the speed limit. It’s that the vehicle’s speed was too high for the combination of road geometry, the load and the vehicle’s dynamics,” Gibson said.

Russell noted there are other contributors: “I see a lot of other elements involved. When the shape of the road changes, through roadworks … the speed you’ve been doing every day no longer applies.”

The key, she said, is “consultation with your road managers and how they’re managing their roads, even to your private road managers.

“The only way to know a vehicle’s limit is to go over it and then back it off slightly. But that’s not practical, so we rely on familiarity with rigs, roads, and loads.”

“The opportunity is around technology,” Gibson said, “to look at what the data is telling us.”

Our fleets are having patterns of near misses, “and we’re not listening.” The data is in our stability, braking and other systems. Tracking good drivers can be especially useful, according to Gibson: “It’s powerful because, for the first time, we can say ‘no, you’re pushing the boundaries.”

Driver error: eliminate risks, not operators

Driver error is a controversial topic, and Gibson noted that exploring these crashes isn’t about laying blame, especially as “our data suggest we have one of the best road transport industries in the world.

“It’s full of exceptional, skilled people who are passionate about doing their job well.”

‘Driver error’ crashes are those where the last event or action that led to a crash was something the driver did or didn’t do, such as running into a stationary object, as opposed to those caused by factors outside the driver’s control, such as being hit by an out-of-control car.

Distraction is a big category here due to mobile phones, cabin design and other factors in the driving environment.

But simple, non-technological solutions can be highly effective, according to Gibson: “It’s about saying, ‘you’re coming back into mobile coverage for the first time in an hour and a half. We’ll schedule you a 15-minute break at this risk area. It’s 10 more minutes down the road. Pull up, have a walk around, check your messages.’ That way, the pressure is removed.”

If there is an incident, then good drivers will want to learn. That’s where communication, company culture and driver attitudes come into play.

“Some drivers will beat themselves up more than anything we could say to them because they pride themselves on their work,” Russell said. “It’s more difficult when a driver is resistant to hearing feedback.”

Final thoughts

Asked how a business can learn more about addressing safety in their operations, Gibson suggested getting involved in your state transport association.

“They’re a forum for best-practice … you can collaborate and find people who already have solutions you can emulate.

“The second thing is to visit NTI’s online Better Business Hub. There are a lot of great resources, and if you’re looking for something and don’t find it there, there’s a form where you can ask us the question.”

Russell agreed that transport associations are great but emphasised communication:

“We’re an authentic industry. We’re made up of people who really are the salt of the earth, so communicate with them at the same level. If your toolboxes are at 5am when the drivers are starting, make sure you’re there and walking in their shoes.

“You have to be genuine. Don’t put a message out if you don’t believe it.”

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