United by safety, divided by rates

By: Tamara Whitsed

Reflections on road transport’s changing attitudes to safety, compliance and conflict over the past quarter of a century

United by safety, divided by rates
Better trucks and roads have made the industry safer over the past 25 years.


The trucking industry was under intense scrutiny in 1992. A tragic truck and bus crash at Grafton in 1989 had killed 21 people and caused a public outcry.

Governments were determined to rein in the cowboy element of the industry amid revelations of illicit use of ephedrine and widespread disregard for fatigue regulations.

Looking back, driver Barry Grimson says the public’s concerns were warranted, but the industry has changed a lot since then.

"I probably owe the reason that I’m still behind the wheel to the changes made," says Grimson, 74, who drives interstate for Unanderra Tanker Hire.

In the past 25 years Grimson has seen regulations tighten and fines increase.

He has adjusted his driving accordingly, and in 2014 ATA NSW awarded him the NSW Professional Driver of the Year Award.

He believes required breaks reduce the pressure of the job and says this has probably extended his career.

But he adds today’s fatigue regulations are "too rigid" and wishes the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) and Transport Workers Union (TWU) would get their "shiny arses into gear" to fix them.

Grimson hasn’t always relied on the TWU and associations to lobby for change. He was one of five instigators of the 1979 Razorback Blockade.                               

Time for a change

After the Grafton tragedy, industry associations braced themselves, expecting governments to respond with harsh regulations.

That’s why, late in 1989, representatives from leading trucking associations formed of the Road Transport Industry Forum (RTIF) to present a united voice for trucking operators.

In 1992 the RTIF changed its name to the Road Transport Forum (RTF), became incorporated and launched its Mobile Safety Information Trailer.

Now known as the Australian Trucking Association, the organisation has been the industry peak body during a period which has seen roads opened up to B-doubles and other high productivity combinations, tightening of fatigue regulations, introduction of Chain of Responsibility legislation, and establishment of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR).

When a government rolls up its sleeves to thump the trucking industry, the ATA steps into the melee to negotiate a fairer deal for operators.

An early achievement was introducing the ATA’s own voluntary accreditation scheme, TruckSafe.

The ATA believed self-regulation would win respect from politicians and increase their lobbying clout. Today TruckSafe comprises five modules (six for livestock transporters).

Another compliance scheme, the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme (NHVAS) has been available since 1999. This is now managed by the NHVR.

Accredited operators are likely to have an office wall filled with folders labelled ‘Mass Management’, ‘Maintenance’, ‘TruckSafe’ and ‘Fatigue’. And they probably increased office staff to stay on top of compliance.

Transport offices are more computerised than in 1992, and accounting practices altered in 2000 to accommodate the GST.

Fleet owners love software which can show every truck in the fleet at a glance. Drivers are less excited about being tracked every inch of the journey.

Not all in the industry have been happy to embrace change.

There have been recurring themes: work diaries make drivers rest when they are alert and drive when they are tired; politicians don’t understand the realities of trucking; it’s hard to find healthy food on the highway; car drivers need to learn how to share the road with trucks; and there is a special place in Hell reserved for caravanners.

And then there is the issue that has been festering for decades – rates.

Safe rates

In 2012 the Federal Labor Government established the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) which determined minimum pay rates for contract truck drivers.

But the Coalition Government abolished the tribunal and its Road Safety Remuneration Order (RSRO) in 2016.

Owner-driver, Frank Black, supported the RSRT and says he was "dumbfounded" when sectors of the transport industry protested against it.

Black represented owner-drivers on the ATA general council from 2003 to 2009 and again from 2011 until early-2017. He is also a member of the TWU which was the RSRT’s most vocal supporter.

The ATA normally steers clear of industrial relations issues, and Black believes the association should have remained impartial in this RSRT debate.

"They shouldn’t have protested against it," he says, referring to the 2016 Convoy to Canberra.

Black says the ATA was "unbiased" when it was first established, "but I think in the last 10 years or so it’s a very biased organisation, and it’s biased towards employers and employer groups".

He was driving a Mercedes 1418 in 1992. Today he drives a Freightliner Century Class and says better trucks and roads have made the industry safer over the past 25 years.

But trucking still has its dangers.

"To me you go back to the age-old complaint in the industry, and that is the drivers being put under pressure."

He says chain of responsibility "needs to be followed up more, and a lot more heads in companies need to roll because they are still finding ways around it".

Victorian livestock carrier, John Beer, who opposed the RSRT, replaced Black as the ATA owner-driver representative at the 2017 election. Beer says he is conscious of the influence "big operators" have on the ATA.

But he says there are a few other "grass-roots people there", including small fleet operator representative, Lynley Miners. "Hopefully we can get our point of view across."

Safety advocate Rod Hannifey served as ATA owner-driver representative for two years from 2009. He says the ATA general council mostly comprises "big company people who aren’t there for drivers".

"The ATA don’t like that criticism," Hannifey says.

He says only the small fleet operator representative of the time, Doug McMillan, shared his level of concern for drivers. "I felt that no matter what you said you were outvoted 25 to 2."

Surprisingly, only 76 people were registered to vote for the owner-driver representative at the 2017 ATA election. And only 56 actually voted (if you are eligible, you can register at www.truck.net.au/public/about/ata-elections).

It is even more difficult for company drivers to make their views heard. Drivers can’t vote a fellow employee driver onto the ATA general council (the ATA represents operators.) And not all of the ATA member associations accept memberships from employee drivers.

The TWU accepts membership from employee drivers and owner-drivers and is a member of the ATA.

The National Road Freighters Association (NRFA) and Australian Long Distance Owner and Drivers Association (ALDODA) are also options for both owner-drivers and drivers. These two associations are not ATA members.

ALDODA is remembered for protests including an attempted national shutdown in 2008. And the NRFA led the 2011 Convoy of No Confidence. Recent TWU campaigns have included picketing supermarket chains.

Industry in mourning

Safety remains a major concern for all sectors of the trucking industry. In 2016 there were 107 fatal crashes on Australian roads involving articulated trucks.

This has dropped from 181 crashes in 1992 (figures from Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics’ 2016 crash statistical summary on road trauma involving heavy vehicles).

Australia’s first truck drivers’ memorial at Tarcutta is a visible reminder of the drivers we have lost. It was constructed in 1994 and there are now several memorials throughout Australia.

Many readers have lost friends on the road, or have themselves been injured or traumatised by accidents.

Since 2005 Trans-Help Foundation has offered support to drivers and their families in need.

CEO Dianne Carroll says the foundation helps people understand the work cover process, and refers them to professional counsellors and other services.

Trans-Help health vans are staffed by volunteers who encourage drivers to prevent accidents by looking after their health.

Driving history

Twenty five years ago, Australia’s transport industry was growing increasingly aware of the importance of its own history.

Significant trucks were rusting away on farms, and pioneering truckies were taking their stories to the grave.

Historian and author, Liz Martin OAM, was among a group of Northern Territorians who met at Alice Springs in 1992 to discuss how they might preserve our transport heritage.

Three years later this industrious group opened the National Road Transport Hall of Fame at Alice Springs.

In 2017 it houses almost 400 historic trucks and 1200 people have been inducted to the Wall of Fame. Our desire to preserve trucking history has led to several other museums being established throughout Australia.

Another significant event in 1992 was the inaugural Sydney Convoy for Kids which has been held every year since.

The convoy attracted about 300 trucks this year. Since 1992, the Sydney convoy has raised over $2.5 million for children’s charities.

Similar convoys across the nation shine a positive light on an industry which is too often condemned by the media.

A more recent trend sees classic truck lovers taking their vehicles out of their sheds for highway runs.

In 2011 the first Haulin’ the Hume classic truck run traced the old Hume Highway from Sydney to Yass.

Its success inspired Crawlin’ the Hume from Melbourne to Albury; Sylvia’s Gap Run near Tumblong, NSW; and Pacin’ the Pacific from Beresfield to Wauchope, NSW.

"A lot of [trucks] that would have just been cut up for scrap are actually getting resurrected," says Bruce Gunter who instigated Haulin’ the Hume.

One insurance company advised Gunter that the number of people taking out insurance for classic trucks had quadrupled since the first Haulin’ the Hume.

Gunter says static truck shows are also growing "bigger and bigger". He helped establish the Kenworth Klassic which is part of the Clarendon Classic in Sydney’s North West.

Many of the historic trucks attending classic truck events in 2017 were still hard at work in 1992.

If you’re among the thousands who have been photographed at truck shows by our reporters, thanks for polishing your rig and smiling for the camera.

Read the full feature in the January 2018 edition of ATN. Order your copy here.

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