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Driver danger – the troubles with truck training

A driver shortage means heavy vehicle licencing is becoming easier to get in Australia. But is it setting a dangerous precedent?

Livestock transport driver Daniel has witnessed plenty during his truck driving career. Whether it be trucks flying towards him head on down the wrong side of the road or vehicles nearly plummeting through roadworks, many horrifying scenes have floated across Daniel’s windscreen over the years.

“What I see on the roads would scare the average person,” Daniel told ATN. “I’ve seen truck drivers terrorise the public on the roads and give us all a bad name.”

Having been in the industry for nearly 15 years, Daniel remembers first heading off to training to receive his heavy vehicle licence. He went through the heavy rigid program in a week-long course at Werribee TAFE under an ex-truckie. While there he learnt the rights and wrongs of truck driving, as well as essential lessons like how to tie down loads.

When he passed the course and went onto the roads as a qualified operator, Daniel says he felt “reasonably comfortable going out on the road”.

Years later Daniel returned to get his B-Double licence. He went one-on-one with the same ex-truckie trainer. Daniel says he was taught a lot he wouldn’t have learnt otherwise from driving Australia’s roads daily.

With truck and road safety now a pressing issue in the transport industry, Daniel says it’s these training standards that make the world of difference for truckies.

“Nowadays you see training groups on Facebook advertising people to get their B-Double licence within one day for $1500,” Daniel says. “That doesn’t prepare people for what’s out here on the road.

“People are coming into the industry afresh, whether it be from overseas or Australia, and getting their B-Double ticket within eight hours when they shouldn’t even be allowed to drive a ride-on lawn mower.”

Dangers to others

Daniel now refuses to drive at night. He only takes day delivery jobs and often uses longer and quieter routes to get from Victoria to New South Wales and South Australia rather than taking the popular freight roads used by many truck drivers. It’s because of these new truck drivers that Daniel has changed his driving habits.

When he sees recently qualified truck drivers getting into trouble, Daniel can understand why the general public is scared of many trucks on the road. According to Daniel, new drivers who have only gone through one day of training have created the biggest problem currently facing the transport industry.

“I watched a truck driver nearly take out a roadworks crew the other day because they weren’t paying attention,” Daniel says. “They came in at 80 kilometres an hour in a 40 zone and had to cut cars off to avoid taking the crew out.

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“I actually passed the driver earlier and saw them with their feet on the dash and earphones in, not paying attention – this is why we as a collective have a bad reputation.”

Automated trucks and new technology have been introduced into the industry as a means of making modern truck driving easier. But when trucks are hauling 65 to 68 tonnes a trip and are responsible for this heavy load getting down the road, Daniel says new drivers need to be taught the basics. This includes the simple things, from how to stay concentrated to how to unhook trailers.

“I remember being shown how to hook up a trailer and unhook it correctly,” Daniel says. “Drives now have no idea how to do a quick hitch or pull the kingpin, yet they have B-Double licences.

“It scares me for the family I have on the road and myself – I quite often see trucks driving down the wrong side of the road.”

But the issue isn’t simple. Daniel wants truck driver training groups to actively hunt experienced former drivers to lure them back into the industry and train the next generation. If novices can be taught the way he was, Daniel says the truck driving industry could become safer in the future.

Who pays?

However, driver training schools say it’s not that easy. Transport Driver Training (TDT) was founded 25 years ago to help emerging industry workers receive their truck licences. In a continual fight to bring former drivers back as trainers, TDT state operations manager Gary Buckeridge told ATN that the industry needs to expand the pool of high-quality trainers.

The team at TDT Training

“It’s currently expensive now,” Buckeridge says. “People say courses should go for days but who is paying for it if it does? It’s Catch-22.

“Is it the students or do transport companies pay for it?

TDT is one of the many training groups that offer a one-day course for heavy rigid licences. But the group has devised its own way of ensuring its graduates are safe and capable truck operators. TDT first starts with a skills validation process for courses ranging from light rigid licenses to heavy rigid qualifications. After the student passes a knowledge test, the trainer works with them to ensure their skills are up to standard before heading to a practical assessment.  

But in a promise that TDT makes clear to all its students before commencing the course, students must have their skills validated by the trainer before going to the assessments. This means some students don’t get to go to the assessment process that day if they aren’t ready. It may result in plenty of unhappy prospective drivers, but Buckeridge says it’s a necessary precaution that TDT must take.

“People come in and expect to get a licence straight up in one day, but they won’t be able to do it with TDT if they don’t have the skills,” he says. “We pride ourselves on having safe and competent truck drivers, it’s a hand on heart thing.

“TDT has never had a fatality from any of its students yet and we pride ourselves on that.”

If students aren’t ready to head to the assessment in the one day allotted for the course, it’s up to them or their operator to pay for the student to return the next day and learn until they are ready to be tested. Although it doesn’t directly satisfy Daniel’s wish to extend training course durations, TDT says it’s still an effective way of weeding out drivers who aren’t yet ready to take to the roads.

Both Buckeridge and Daniel agree that finding skilled trainers who have had experience in the industry is the key component required to produce better truck drivers going forward. Although it may be considered a low-ranking job for many ex-truckies, Buckeridge says it’s a constant struggle that TDT is always trying to change.

“There is a genuine shortage of heavy vehicle licence trainers across the industry,” he says. “Passionate industry experienced truckies make for great trainers.”

But if Daniel is to get his wish to see heavy vehicle licencing become stricter, Buckeridge says consistency across Australia is critical. If laws are tough in Victoria but drivers can head up to Queensland to get licences easier, then Buckeridge says the whole system will revert to its current model quickly. It’s not just a regulation problem – it’s a matter of safety.

“The key is consistency across all heavy vehicle licence providers and across the nation,” he says. “They say licencing is national but it’s different in each state.

“If it’s national we need consistency across the board. It’s the main way to keep our country safe and to ensure only highly skilled drivers hit the roads so we can become a safer industry.”

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