When they meet on December 15, Australia’s transport ministers will have the opportunity to fix the medical standards for truck drivers.
The medical standards are not fit for purpose. They are not good enough for deciding if someone is up to the demanding task of driving a truck safely.
The medical standards are set out in a document called Assessing Fitness to Drive, or AFTD. It includes two sets of standards: one for private drivers and one for commercial drivers. The commercial standards are used for both licensing and accreditation medicals, such as for NHVAS, TruckSafe and Western Australian Heavy Vehicle Accreditation.
The National Transport Commission reviewed AFTD this year, but they completely missed the key problems with the commercial standards.
Most importantly, the standards do not deal properly with sleep apnoea, a condition that can cause people to fall asleep while driving.
The current approach checks for sleep apnoea through the list of questions that you fill in before you see the doctor.
The questions ask you to think about eight situations and mark down your chance of dozing off on a scale from zero to three. The situations range from sitting and reading, to lying down to rest in the afternoon, to being stopped in a car for a few minutes in traffic.
I’m sure you can see the problem. Some drivers will understate their chance of drowsing off.
I know of two fatal crashes since 2010 that could have been prevented if AFTD had better sleep apnoea screening. I am sure that better screening would have also prevented an untold number of crashes involving injuries or vehicle damage.
When the ATA raised our concerns in the review, the NTC told us that amending the medical standards to include stronger screening was legally a matter for each state and territory.
We provided the NTC with legal advice showing this was incorrect. They then switched to a different objection and claimed they had never raised the legal argument in the first place.
The NTC’s own approach is to develop a separate driver health standard as part of the review of the Heavy Vehicle National Law.
There are two disastrous problems with this idea.
It would, most likely, only apply to drivers working for businesses in the new version of NHVAS. That’s not good enough.
It would also involve extra cost and confusion.
Drivers might have to get two separate medicals (one for the NHVR and one, if required, for their state driver licensing authority). Doctors would be unsure about what standard they should use.
In the ATA’s view, Australia’s transport ministers should use their December 15 meeting to reject the 2021 AFTD review.
Ministers should require the NTC to do the review again and amend the AFTD commercial standards to include objective screening tests for sleep apnoea, diabetes and cardiac risk level.
They should also agree to take the proposed driver health standard out of the national law.
Instead, all heavy vehicle drivers should be required as a licensing condition to have regular medicals against the improved version of the standards.
This approach would increase the chances that drivers with health problems could get them found and treated – so they could continue working safely and continue with their lives.