Reflecting on the biggest change in trucking in the past 25 years

By: Matt Wood


With quarter of a century under his belt within trucking and transport Matt Wood looks back and reflects on the single biggest change of the last two and a half decades: compliance.

Reflecting on the biggest change in trucking in the past 25 years
The old NSW Roads and Traffic Authority during one of its speeding truck blitzes.

 

There’s a nice synchronicity to looking back over the last two and a half decades of trucking.

It also happens to be almost 25 years since my professional involvement in trucking began. Which makes me feel kinda old.

Sure, electronically-controlled engines were already a thing, but there were still plenty of smoke belching mechanical bangers plying the roads.

I’d thrown my hat in the ring for a career in trucking. As a fresh-faced country boy starting out as a driver in the big smoke it was a baptism of fire.

I was starting at the bottom, at the wheel of a little Isuzu FSR. On the plus side it had power steering and an AM radio.

On the minus side it had no air con. Then again neither did the old Bedfords, Commers, ACCOs I was used to steering in the bush.

But really I’d have to say that from a driver’s view looking back, the biggest change over the last quarter of a century has been compliance.

Back then compliance was a logbook. Pretty much all you had to do was make it look legit.

If the boss was happy and the job got done then all was good. You worked hard and got a decent enough pay packet for it. Simple.

Back in the early ’90s if you’d told me that one day that compliance would be a full-time job in most large transport companies I would’ve said you were mad.

The idea that you could be breached/booked for letting it roll a couple of kays over would’ve seemed ludicrous at the time.

Same goes for working a little bit over hours here and there. In fact by the time I slipped behind the wheel for my first interstate job, most of the trucks in the fleet had "generous" speed limiters.

Oh how times have changed. Many would say for the worse but I can’t help but play devil’s advocate here.

Compliance has encompassed so many facets of a driver’s daily workload.

There are inductions to various distribution centres, transport depots and construction sites. All this along with vehicle roadworthiness and speed.

A whole industry has sprung from being compliant.

Chain of responsibility and threat of litigation has meant that there’s also more monitoring and accountability for those behind the wheel.

It would be tempting to romanticise the past at this point. We can all recall a perfect night where you got out of town early and had a clear run with traffic.

We can all recall that time when the truck just seemed to be doing everything right, the load was spot on and the engine was pulling like a train.

The gear stick fell silkily smooth into the slot and the whole thing just marched up hills while belching a very satisfying cloud of fuel smoke - one of those trips that validated your desire to drive trucks in the first place.

That’s the thing about hindsight, it often glosses over the bad stuff in the face of change.

I remember the first time that a bloke I knew was killed in a truck accident. I’m not saying he was a mate but we knew each other by name and chatted when we bumped into each other.

It was a shock. The pictures of that crumpled CH Mack are still etched in my memory, 20 tonnes of glass tore the cab from the chassis and rolled it into a ball. It was a violent, horrible, ugly way to die.

The official explanation was fatigue, the undercurrent of all that driver chatter was that he’d stuffed up.

"Why didn’t he pull up for 15 minutes?" "He’d had plenty of time during the day to get some sleep." "What was he doing?"

He was the first, but sadly he wouldn’t be the last bloke I knew whose life would come to a premature end at the wheel of a truck.

Regardless of the seemingly endless inductions and driver observations, trucking has never been safer. I’m not saying it’s perfect, far from it.

Trucks and trucking have come a long way in the last 25 years. It’s a fact that modern prime movers are far safer than those from decades past.

However, much of this advancement has bypassed the owner-driver. A single truck operator has their work cut out when it comes to ticking all the compliance boxes while also managing their business.

But the law doesn’t discriminate, you own a truck, you have a business and there are legal obligations that go with it.

The single most galling thing about the rise of compliance is the lowest common denominator approach that it takes. It lacks respect and tarnishes the professionalism of the men and women who haul goods around the country on a daily basis.

In its current form compliance lacks dignity and respect. The reality is that the transport industry is full of highly experienced professionals.

However, compliance judges everybody by the same yardstick. According to the laws of compliance, a workforce is only as strong as its weakest link.

So instead of common sense you often get dumbed down legalities. If your foot gets run over by a forklift then you mustn’t have read the induction properly.

Or maybe you weren’t standing in your little painted box. Or maybe the forkie just stuffed up.

Hard yakka

Having been in the writing gig for a while now, I have the luxury of looking back fondly. I get to romanticise. However, if I’m brutally honest I also have to confront the toll that has been taken on those around me.

I’m not just talking about accidents. I’m also talking about that traditional trucking lifestyle of little sleep, stress and hard yakka.

I spent my entire driving career as "the young bloke", most of my workmates had at least a decade on me. Over that time an alarming amount are now either dead or incapacitated. Bad hearts, bad backs and bad luck.

For all of its inconvenience, compliance has made the job safer, just not safe enough. Not yet.

One way of looking at it is to see the way that safety technology has rolled out in cars and trucks. There are passive safety features.

These revolve around things like air-bags and cab strength. They protect the occupants if an accident happens.

Then there are active safety features, things like stability control, radar cruise control and lane departure warning. These help prevent an accident.

Compliance, like the roll out of safety tech has traditionally been passive, kicking into gear after an incident. It is, however, becoming more active as time passes.

Currently, if a trucking company is involved in an accident it is nearly certain they will be raided and audited.

Hopefully a more pro-active approach will emerge in the future – an active compliance approach that is aimed at preventing accidents rather than protecting either the trucking company or its customers.

And maybe then will follow the dignity and respect that all those behind the wheel in the Australian transport industry deserve.

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