Opinion: Heavy vehicle law changes a safety win

By: Noelene Watson

ATA backs HVNL and COR reform as a welcome move for industry

Opinion: Heavy vehicle law changes a safety win
Noelene Watson.


Last year, the ATA published authoritative figures showing that the rate of fatal articulated truck crashes fell 80 per cent between 1982 and 2015. This is a dramatic improvement in safety, but even one accident is unacceptable.

The ATA was established following the Grafton truck and bus crash in 1989 to improve the industry’s safety, professionalism and viability. We are continuing to push for practical measures to improve road safety.

Central to our focus on practical safety measures has been our campaign to reform the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL), the co-operative national law for the trucking industry in every state and territory apart from Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Changes to this law require the agreement and co-operation of multiple governments, and take some time to bring about.

The HVNL was assembled from a series of model laws which has left it suffering from a number of flaws. The law is complex, it is not consistent with best practice in safety regulation and it imposes a reverse onus of proof on company directors and executives. They have to prove their defence.

Critically, the law does implement a concept called chain of responsibility, where participants in the road transport chain can be held to account for safety issues on the road. But the provisions do not include truck maintenance and repair, even though we know that poor maintenance is a safety issue.

Back in 2012, the ATA began to campaign to reform the law. In 2013, we called on governments to extend chain of responsibility to cover vehicle maintenance and repairs.

Late in 2016, parliament delivered these safety improvements by passing changes to the Heavy Vehicle National Law. These will take effect in early 2018.

Most importantly, the new legislation will establish a primary safety duty on all parties in the defined chain of responsibility, whether they are trucking businesses, consignors or consignees.

This duty will apply to their transport activities, which will be defined to include vehicle maintenance and repair.

To improve consistency, the duty of care will be amended to match the work health and safety standard of ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Experience has shown that the current duty of care, ‘all reasonable steps’, has important practical difficulties.

To reduce complexity, an entire chapter of the legislation will be deleted because the safety issues addressed in the chapter will now be covered by the primary duty. A range of other fiddly, prescriptive requirements will also be deleted.

The legislation will impose a due diligence obligation on company directors and executives, and this duty will apply to directors and executives of all parties in the defined chain of responsibility, not just trucking operators.

In prosecutions for breaches of this duty, the authorities will have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.

This approach is in line with the fundamental principles of our criminal law. Individuals should not have to prove they are innocent.

The change in the burden of proof will be accompanied by a substantial increase in maximum penalties to match the work, health and safety law and increased investigative powers.

Now that the legislation has passed parliament, industry has the remainder of 2017 to prepare.

The ATA’s member associations will provide support and information for their members in the run up to the laws coming into force.

If you’re not a member, I urge you to start 2017 by joining one of our associations today. Their details are available at www.truck.net.au.

Noelene Watson is Chair of the Australian Trucking Association


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