OUR SAY: Safety response to deny, deny, deny

For an industry that prides itself on safety, denial over one of the leading causes is stunning

By Jason Whittaker

For an industry that prides itself on constantly-evolving safety standards, the level of denial on the cause of so many truck accidents is, frankly, stunning.

Employer groups have united in an argument something akin to the climate change debate: the problem doesn’t exist, and the cost of acting on it anyway is simply too great.

There can simply be no other explanation for this rare consensus amongst transport lobby groups. You can’t enforce rate structures in transport because it will send costs soaring, they say. Presumably, if you follow that logic, because so many operators aren’t being paid nearly enough — a point that sounds alarm bells in itself.

Indeed, sub-contractors don’t want or need any help, according to some submissions to the National Transport Commission’s (NTC) inquiry into pay rates and safety. And anyway, they all argue in dulcet chorus, there is no link between remuneration and industry safety. If you say it enough times you start to believe it.

That they are alarmingly, head-in-the-sand wrong is one thing. To repudiate a proven cause of road trauma (when, admittedly, they have all strived to improve trucking safety) is downright culpable.

Mind you, the NTC only promised to examine any "possible" link between driver remuneration and payment methods. As one submission to the inquiry so eloquently states: "What the...?! If the review only relates to a ‘possible link’ the review agenda is flawed, and the process can but only equate to a ‘royal nonsuch’ (to quote Mark Twain)."

Here’s how it really works, as Victorian operator Paul Freestone explains to the inquiry: "It is up to the operator to negotiate with the freight forwarder. This person is usually in middle management (on some sort of bonus system). His job is to keep profits high, costs low. The owner-driver is at the mercy of this person, and depending on market forces may or may not gain increases. Only when the source dries up does the operator have a change of genuine increases."

Freestone goes on to highlight the difficulty in payment cycles of up to two months, where operators are reaching into their own pockets to pay bills without compensation. "To survive, the operator (often a mum and dad business) works long hours, sometimes jeopardising safety," he says.

A safe rates system, he says, will "encourage and protect the vulnerable, hard-working owner-drivers, who currently do not have a voice".

Freestone is the President of the Victorian Transport Association (VTA), an organisation that surprisingly doesn’t see much of a link between safety and pay. Chief Executive Phil Lovel even warns the Federal Government could be held responsible for "market manipulation" and for the supermarket price rises it produces if it intervenes.

Lovel’s Queensland counterpart Peter Garske insists, like supermarket giant Coles tellingly, there is no direct link between driver payment and safety outcomes. Nor is there any evidence operators want contracts regulated, he claims, or are being exploited. Again, what the...?!

Step up Professor Ann Williams, an acknowledged and widely quoted occupational safety expert who has researched and written extensively on the trucking industry. "There is very good evidence of a link between driver payment, remuneration and safety outcomes," she says, pointing to research which clearly demonstrates the involvement of productivity-based payment systems in fatigue and drug use by drivers — findings confirmed in two separate surveys seven years apart.

Judges and coroners have blamed pay systems for fatal truck crashes. Professor Michael Quinlan has repeatedly warned of the inextricable link between pay and safety. The man who quite literally wrote the book on trucking safety is now heading up this latest inquiry by the NTC and is again staring down an industry that thinks it knows better.

Nobody but the most radical union stooge is arguing for a government-run trucking sector. Clearly, commercial reality must remain the key driver in how much customers can afford, and how much carriers get.

But to, as some have, completely dismiss any notion of help for struggling operators, and take the issue of safe rates forever off the table? And, in the current worsening economic climate, to present a deluded argument that pay systems have absolutely nothing to do with the problem?

Sorry, but when your membership walks out the door you only have yourselves to blame.

Is there an inherent link between driver pay schemes and road safety? Have your say in our online poll and tell us whether you think governments should intervene by submitting your comments below.

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