Wide loads in firing line after coronial inquests

Fatal accidents spark coronial call for reduction in wide-load numbers and for changes to the scheme in Queensland

Wide loads in firing line after coronial inquests
Wide loads in firing line after coronial inquests
By Brad Gardner | March 22, 2013

The Queensland Coroner’s Court is pushing for the road transport of oversized loads to be scaled back in response to fatal accidents involving wide loads.

State Coroner Michael Barnes has recommended a string of changes as a result of inquests into the deaths of Kenneth Owens and Queensland Police Sergeant Daniel Stiller, who were involved in separate crashes associated with wide loads on the Bruce Highway.

Barnes has recommended permits be granted to trucking operators as a last resort, suggesting oversized loads could be shipped between ports of Gladstone and Mackay.

"I accept there may be economic benefit to the state as a result of the development which flows from the use of oversized items transported to remote locations," he says.

"However, in view of the inherent danger of such transportation it is important that road transport is not used to move these items if other forms of transport are available.

"Mere cost savings or convenience should not justify increased dangers to other road users."

Barnes adds that permits should also be denied unless the load being transported is indivisible. That recommendation stems from the accident involving Owens, who was driving a car when he collided with a prime mover transporting a miner’s hut.

"The load in that case was a miner’s hut which could readily be manufactured to allow flat packing and on site assembly," he says.

The coroner has criticised the signage used on oversized loads for not providing information on the size of the load or what approaching motorists need to do.

"I recommend that wording on wide load warning signs be reviewed to ensure they more effectively communicate to other road users the size of the load and what is required of them," Barnes says.

Following the development of new signs, Barnes wants the Queensland Government to launch a public awareness campaign to increase motorists’ understanding of what to do around wide loads.

Barnes’ suite of proposals also include a recommendation police stop using motorcycles to escort wide loads.

Stiller was escorting an oversized load in 2010 on his motorcycle when he approached a convoy of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. A truck in the convoy jack-knifed into the path of Stiller, killing him instantly.

He says motorcycles are difficult to spot on a highway and riders have less protection in the event of a crash.

Barnes has also recommended night travel with oversized loads on rural roads be banned.

"In view of the obvious dangers of transporting loads that protrude into adjacent lanes on single lane highways in the dark, I recommend that the practice generally be limited to the metropolitan areas and dual lane carriageways," he says.

Barnes says almost 20,000 excess dimension vehicles travelled on Queensland roads in 2012 and that figure is likely to rise in future due to the growth in the mining sector.

"Accordingly, the risk to public safety associated with this activity will only increase unless it is adequately managed," he says.

Barnes wants the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, which will assume control of managing permits for wide load escorts later this year, to consider his findings when developing any regulations or guidelines.

Owens collided with the miner’s hut, which was protruding into the southbound lane he was travelling in, at Glenorchy just before sunrise about 5.20am on May 17, 2011. He died instantly, but the three passengers travelling with him survived.

Barnes says all drivers involved in the oversized load convoy were appropriately licensed, all work diary and permit checks were completed and there was no evidence of speeding or inappropriate driving.

All warning lights and signs were operating correctly, while the truck driver had also fitted large fluorescent markers to enhance visibility.

Barnes says the truck driver operated "in as safe a manner as was possible" given the 5.4 metre width of the load.

"It is likely that, notwithstanding the fluorescent markers, flags and side lighting, all designed to mark the extremities of the load, Mr Owens’ attention was distracted by the other lights on the prime mover," Barnes says.

However, he adds there were no eyewitness accounts or forensic evidence to provide a conclusive answer as to why Owens did not avoid the load.

"It is likely in my view that the extremities of the load were rendered less obvious because the load was being carried at night," Barnes says.

The 33-year-old Stiller died on December 1, 2010 near Mount Larcom as he was signalling oncoming traffic of an approaching heavy vehicle hauling a dump truck.

The vehicles travelling toward Stiller were made up of three trucks and one four-wheel-drive.

Barnes says only the truck at the front of the line could see Stiller because the officer was travelling on the wrong side of the road. The other vehicles only saw the officer when the truck braked and pulled to the left.

"The motorbike suddenly appeared in front of the first truck in the convoy after emerging from a dip in the road and its position in the southbound lane obscured it from the view of the others in the convoy," Barnes says.

"The first truck and then the other vehicles in the convoy had to brake sharply on account of the motorbike’s presence."

The four-wheel-drive, which was travelling behind the first truck, managed to brake and move to the left of the road when the driver saw Stiller. However, the motorcycle caused problems for the log-carrying truck behind the four-wheel-drive.

"Its driver had to brake sharply to avoid it [the motorcycle] and the slowing vehicles in front of him," Barnes says.

The harsh braking caused the logs to slide forward and bent steel pipes fixed to the front of the trailer. Barnes says the truck travelling at the end of the convoy had to apply the brakes so firmly the back wheels of the prime mover locked up, causing them to slip sideways.

"As soon as they were out of alignment with the trailer, its continuing momentum caused the prime mover to rotate into the path of Sergeant Stiller’s motorbike," Barnes says.

He cited a number of failings that led to the crash, including potentially confusing radio communication and a lack of clear instructions from the lead escort vehicle to the approaching vehicles.

Barnes says the escort did not give enough regard to the need for vehicles to get off the road, while adding that Stiller was ushering the trucks to pull over even though the condition of the road did not allow it.

"At the point Sergeant Stiller reached the convoy, the trucks could not safely get far enough off the left hand side of the road to allow the wide load to pass because of an embankment and wet and soft road verges," Barnes says.

He adds that there was no evidence the vehicles in the convoy were speeding or tailgating. However, the truck driver of the rig that jack-knifed was charged with driving without due care and attention. He was found not guilty.

Barnes says the load Stiller was involved in escorting was almost 7.5 metres wide, while the average width of a lane of the Bruce Highway is 3.5 metres.

"It is readily apparent that the movement of such loads create very significant risks that require careful management if they are to be adequately mitigated," he says.

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