War of words over heavy vehicle fatalities in Queensland

By: Jason Whittaker

Debate is heating up over the cause of rising heavy vehicle fatalities in Queensland as the State Coroner looks set

Debate is heating up over the cause of rising heavy vehicle fatalities in Queensland as the State Coroner looks set to announce an inquiry into the matter.

Queensland Branch Secretary for the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Hughie Williams last week met with Attorney-General Kerry Shine calling for an inquest into why the heavy vehicle road toll has hit 20 — 15 more deaths than this time last year.

Shine will raise the TWU’s concerns with Premier Anna Bligh as well as State Coroner Michael Barnes.

Although an inquest has not been confirmed, Barnes has been contacting a number of industry bodies such as the Queensland Trucking Association (QTA) as well as the TWU to express his intentions as well as to outline what an inquest would involve.

According to Williams, an inquest would expose "criminal bosses" and "scare the daylights" out of those who pushed drugs on to their drivers as well as forced them to drive excessive hours, thus breaching fatigue management laws.

"Too many people have been killed and it has got to stop," he says.

"We want to see people who are causing these problems, such as drug sellers, crooked loading agents, criminal bosses…and anybody in the industry who is pushing drivers to take drugs or to driver illegal hours…brought before the inquest…charged and…jail[ed]," Williams says.

He says such circumstances are creating "unnecessary carnage" on the road, and argued the issue was a widespread problem in the transport industry.

QTA CEO Peter Garske, however, has expressed scepticism towards Williams’ accusation that employers are responsible for the increase in heavy vehicle fatalities.

He dismissed as "nonsense" Williams’ claim of criminal bosses pushing drugs on to drivers.

"Those assertions have been made for some time by the TWU but little or no evidence has been forthcoming," Garske says.

"The drivers are in fact punished if they do things wrong; they are actively discouraged from breaking the law."

Garske says the fatalities have increased as a proportion of the rise in the number of heavy vehicles now operating.

"If you look at the significant increase in the number of heavy vehicles registered across Australia, and indeed Queensland, then correspondingly we should not be surprised that numbers on the increase," he says.

Garkse says roadside random drug testing results indicate drug use is neither a widespread problem nor a cause for the rising death toll.

"If the level of rampant illegal activity that the TWU would imply were to be the case, the level of accidents and fatalities would indeed be considerably greater," Garske says.

Garske calls Williams’ comments "sadly insulting" to the "many thousands of [truck] drivers who driver every day of the week delivering the freight task of this country".

He is concerned William’s comments will only perpetuate the myth of the drug-fuelled truck driver as well as industry that takes a lax approach to safety. "It becomes a slur on our industry which is difficult to remove," he says.

As such, Garske is doubtful an inquest will reveal a culture of "criminal bosses" or rampant drug use. Rather, he says he is hopeful it will put to rest public concerns over the trucking industry’s approach to safety.

"It has the potential to demonstrate to the community that the industry is overwhelmingly a safe one," he says.

Despite their differences in regard to the causes of heavy vehicle fatalities, Garske, like Williams, says the matter needs to be addressed.

"I certainly agree with Hughie that the current state of the road fatalities in Queensland throughout last year, and sadly and more particularly this year, is terrible," he says.

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