December 1, 2022

New thinking is needed to improve industry safety

About ten years ago, Lindsay Fox called for all heavy trucks to be equipped with a “black box”.

The idea was that if the truck was involved in a serious incident, there would be a record of the truck’s recent operating data and possibly a driver view to see what condition it was in.

The idea had a lot of merit. Lindsay’s assumption was that someone would look at the crash data and learn from it.

Every two years, National Transport Insurance publishes a detailed analysis of its truck claims.

The analysis is actually done by the National Transportation Accident Research Center (NTARC), which is funded by NTI.

The report provides a good overview of the safety performance of the heavy vehicle fleet, as represented by the sample of trucks insured by NTI. 852 incidents were assessed for the 2020 insurance year.

It can be expected that approximately one in every 400 trucks insured by NTI will experience a major loss each year. The classification of causes of NTI’s high loss collisions in 2020 is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

The majority of incidents are the result of errors made by the truck driver. NTARC recently released a collaborative report with the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) on the correlation between MOT issues and the likelihood of a major loss.

The NTARC is an important investigative body that does an excellent job of informing the trucking truck logistics industry about safety performance.

But it’s not enough. The Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE) frequently publishes a report on road trauma involving heavy vehicles.

Figure 2.

In calendar year 2020, a total of 177 people were killed in crashes involving heavy vehicles. Of this number, 31 (17.5%) occupied the cabin of the heavy vehicle. For reference, the total number of road deaths in 2020 on public roads was 1,100.

As a result, road trauma involving heavy vehicles accounts for approximately 17% of road trauma in Australia.

Trends over the past two years – see Figure 2 – show a significant increase in road fatalities involving rigid trucks and static performance for other heavy vehicles.

Note that BITRE data does not include workplace injuries. NTI/NTARC reports do not identify the proportion of high loss incidents that involve death or serious injury. Moreover, there is no connection with the BITRE report, at least not in the public domain.

The trends that are evident in Figure 2 gradually improve when considering the scale of the freight task. According to NTI, the number of trucks has increased by about 50% since 2003.

Freight tonne-kilometres increased by 55%. Despite this, the level of road trauma has decreased, until recently. So maybe we can just wait for the roads to get better, the trucks to get safer, and the drivers to get better.

Sorry, I don’t agree.

Australia has a national road strategy and the states and territories have strategies that build on the national strategy.

The national strategy is drawn up by the Federal Office for Road Safety. The latest strategy document concerns the period 2021-2030. He notes that there have been a significant number of work-related fatalities that were not the result of collisions.

Thirty-one percent of work-related fatalities were the result of falling vehicles or injury while loading vehicles.

Therefore, a significant level of logistics-industry trauma does not show up in road safety injury reports.

The box presents an excerpt from the Strategy concerning the safety of heavy vehicles.

The Strategy is necessary and appropriate. But this is still not enough as detailed proposals need to be developed and justified. All of the reports and strategies I have identified in this article have merit and are important. I think we can do better.

I propose that a Heavy Vehicle Safety Office be established within AustRoads reporting to the State and Territory Transport Ministers. This office must obtain reports on specific incidents involving heavy vehicles from insurance companies, emergency service agencies (police, EPA), and state workplace safety regulators.

Picture 3.

Incidents can be defined as major losses to insurers or serious injuries on the side of the road or at work. This Office should issue reports that classify and explain the causes of heavy vehicle incidents and consider changes that could improve performance.

It would work in cooperation with the Federal Office for Road Safety to complete the details of the national strategy needed to take heavy vehicle safety to the next level.

Remember the adage that you can’t control what you can’t understand. The Heavy Vehicle Safety Board can be paid from heavy vehicle registration fees.

It would soon pay for itself through a reduction in the number of security incidents. It should report to transport ministers through existing regulatory structures.

The Heavy Vehicle Safety Board would have access to registration data and could also obtain specific information from vehicle suppliers to determine what technologies were on specific vehicles. The Bureau would not conduct site investigations or be called into legal disputes as it would not release details of specific incidents.

The Office of Heavy Vehicle Safety would also be responsible, for example, for monitoring the adoption of safety technologies on heavy vehicle road safety.

The Federal Strategy makes no explicit reference to autonomous emergency braking or lane departure warning technologies. The case for promoting these technologies probably exists in the crash data.

The Bureau could also develop proposals to improve operator working practices and driver certification levels.

He could go into the details of a safe systems approach to workplace safety and try to explain what that means for the industry.

For example, there is an urgent need to improve the career structure, training and status of heavy vehicle drivers, who are the most important element of the industry’s safety performance.

Many of the improvements needed fall outside the federal government’s jurisdiction over road safety.

The Heavy Vehicle Safety Office could provide the leadership our industry needs to dramatically improve safety performance.

Dr Peter Hart,
ARTSA-I Life Member