Overheight trucks can now be taken off NSW roads

After a spate of overheight trucks in Sydney tunnels in recent weeks, NSW can now remove heavy vehicles from the road for up to six months after a breach.

Under the existing national regulation of heavy vehicles, Transport for NSW can deregister trucks and take them off the road once the NHVR has referred an incident as “aggravated circumstances”.

But after an emergency meeting this week between Minister for Roads John Graham and NHVR chairman Duncan Gay and acting chief executive Ray Hassall, the NHVR has agreed to refer all overheight breaches at tunnels as “aggravated” events.

“Because even the smallest breach is repeatedly threatening safety on Sydney roads and causing chaos and congestion to city traffic, particularly at the busy entrance to the Sydney Harbour Tunnel,” said a NSW Government media statement.

“In future all tunnel overheight incidents will be deemed aggravated no matter what the level of the breach and Transport for NSW will be able to take action against owners and operators more often.”

Since August 2022, when heavy vehicle regulatory functions were transferred to the NHVR, just four registration sanctions have been completed against trucking companies by Transport for NSW on referral from the NHVR for overheight breaches in relation to tunnels in NSW, and of these, one was thrown out by the court.

Graham thanked the regulator for working collaboratively to send a clear warning to operators and truckies who are “still not getting the message” about overheight restrictions.

“Today’s agreement shows the NSW Government has zero tolerance for these city-choking breaches and we hope that the threat of losing a heavy vehicle to a registration ban is a message that is not missed in the quarters of the industry that are still ignoring the rules around trip planning and load height,” Graham said.

At the same time, the NSW Government said it is strengthening advance warning systems and raising awareness through driver education in collaboration with the NHVR.

The government said it has approved the deployment of $5 million in infrastructure upgrades, which will include moving sensors further back along the Warringah Freeway to ensure heavy vehicle drivers can take earlier evasive action to avoid blocking traffic at the tunnel portal.

“This issue needs to be tackled using preventative as well as enforcement measures,” Gay added.

“The NHVR is committed to working with our partners to raise better awareness for operators and drivers.

“Operators and drivers are again urged to measure the height of their truck and plan their journey ahead of time to ensure they comply with tunnel height clearances.”

The NSW Government has ruled out closing the Harbour Tunnel to trucks altogether because the majority of heavy vehicles are already prevented from crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge due to mass constraints.

Closing the tunnel to heavy vehicles would precipitate truck drivers using alternative routes across Sydney that in some cases would add 42 kilometres to the current route between Port Botany and the M1 at Wahroonga and involve many more truck movements through Sydney suburbs, it said.

Meanwhile, the National Road Transport Association (NatRoad) said the solution to overheight trucks blocking the Sydney Harbour Tunnel is already in plain sight.

NatRoad says Artificial Intelligence needs to be applied to a handful of the state’s 168 existing traffic monitoring cameras near the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and other key height-restricted infrastructure.

“The big stick solution is clearly not working and the obvious problem is the positioning of the cameras,” said NatRoad CEO Warren Clark.

“By the time a truck comes into view, it’s too late. They can’t make a U-turn so they have to back out, which takes time and has a knock-on effect for following traffic.”

Clark said there are similar problems in the US, where there are 617,000 bridges and 520 tunnels. Damage by overheight trucks is the country’s second largest cause of bridge failure.

“Researchers in New York City are using a very low-cost Artificial intelligence vehicle warning system to combat 200 incidents annually.

“AI could easily identify an over-height truck in the vicinity of the Harbour Tunnel and trigger a strategically placed warning sign long before it enters an approach road.”

Last year, Transport for NSW trialled AI cameras in the Hunter Valley and at Stanwell Tops as a road safety measure.  It has cameras using similar technology called machine learning at 13 locations but only two are in metropolitan Sydney and they only monitor truck loads.

“Our industry supports more driver education and traffic snarls are as annoying to truck drivers as they are to motorists,” Clark said.

“The real answer here is using existing technology to better effect and deploying it in locations where it’s going to be more effective.”

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