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Legal action looms over ‘highway to hell’

Queensland government may face lawsuit from trucking company over claims it is failing its duty of care to the industry

By Brad Gardner | August 12, 2009

Queensland’s government may face legal action from a trucking company over claims the state’s road department is failing its duty of care to truck drivers.

Mineral and Mine Movers Transport owner Peter Schuback says the Department of Transport and Main Roads has an obligation to improve road safety or face criminal and civil charges.

The industry veteran, whose company is based in Hervey Bay in northern Queensland, claims the road network is unsafe and has urged the department to take immediate action to resolve the issue.

Unless it does so, Schuback says Transport and Main Roads can be prosecuted under the Civil Liability Act , which puts the onus on an individual or public authority to rectify a danger once notified of it if it falls within their responsibilities.

Those who do not resolve the problem after being notified can be brought before a court.

“I’ve put them on notice that the roads are unsafe,” Schuback says.

“If they don’t take notice, they become liable. If we can be charged under the law so can they.”

In a letter written to the department, Schuback says Queensland highways are plagued by uneven surfaces, broken edges, potholes, “excessive drop offs” and are unfit for wet weather conditions.

“It is now your duty of care responsibility to have all roads brought up to a safe condition and to reduce the speed limits on all main roads and highways in Queensland until such work is carried out,” he writes to the department.

Schuback cites the federally-funded Warrego Highway as one of the worst stretches of road in Queensland, saying too many motorists and truck drivers are dying.

But while the Act puts the onus on parties to take action, it also has a clause stating road authorities cannot be held liable if they are unaware of the danger.

“Whether or not the Department of Transport and Main Roads is liable for damage or otherwise depends upon the particular facts and circumstances of any alleged incident,” a government spokesperson says.

The clause is meant to recognise a road department’s large maintenance obligations and that funds are not always available to finance repairs or upgrades.

Schuback, however, claims he has contacted the department on numerous occasions about the state of the road network. The letter sent to Transport and Main Roads and obtained by ATN is dated June 23, 2009.

A coroner earlier this year also recommended greater efforts to improve the Warrego Highway.

An inquest into a fatal collision between a truck and a car on the highway heard evidence that maintenance could have averted the accident.

Vanessa Louise Kingston died on March 29, 2006 when her car collided with the front bull bar of a rigid truck at Dalby north west of Brisbane.

“Truck drivers who gave evidence at the inquest all remarked on the poor state of the roadway in this area. All believe the roadway is unsafe and poorly maintained,” Coroner Sheryl Cornack wrote in her report.

Cornack wrote there was “significant erosion at the edges of the road” due to heavy vehicle traffic and found that the edge of lane Kingston was driving in was eroded and had a 70mm drop off.

“These factors cause danger to motorists. The width of the roadway appears inadequate for heavy vehicles with protruding mirrors,” Cornack’s report states.

Cornack recommended a review be conducted to determine if widening was needed to accommodate heavy vehicle traffic and also recommended the route be monitored and necessary maintenance carried out.

The Queensland Opposition used the findings to call for upgrades to large sections of the highway, with the Liberal-National Party’s Ray Hopper calling the road “a highway to hell”.

“The coroner has confirmed what everyone who uses the Warrego knows – the pavement is far too narrow, the edges are deep and dangerous, and a lot of the roadway is so badly rutted that keeping control of a vehicle is often very difficult,” he says.

Hopper accused the Bligh Government of ignoring “the death trap” and urged Main Roads Minister Craig Wallace and Transport Minister Rachel Nolan to pay more attention to the route.

A spokesperson for Transport and Main Roads says the department is improving sections of the highway as part of a federally funded program.

The spokesperson says $10 million is being spent resurfacing the road between Tivoli and Blacksoil near Ipswich, with another $7.5 million being used to bankroll road resurfacing and a guardrail on the Marburg and Minden ranges.

The department is also planning to widen the road shoulder at Minden and is currently holding community consultations on proposed safety works on the Villis Road intersection west of Brisbane, the spokesperson says.

This follows an $800,000 cash injection from the Federal Government for routine maintenance the past two years, which the spokesperson says has been used on various locations on the highway.

The spokesperson says the Rudd Government has also committed $55 million to the highway between now and 2014 to widen and strengthen the route as part of the Nation Building Program.

Of this, $5 million will also be spent on rest areas and $10 million spent on overtaking lanes between Oakey and Dalby.

In responding to Schuback’s claims, Transport and Main Roads also says it regularly monitors speed limits on the highway.

“Reductions in speed limits have been introduced along some sections of the Warrego Highway for the safety of motorists,” the spokesperson says.

According to the department, speed limits have been reduced on sections that run through Ipswich, Toowoomba and Oakey.

Active speed signs will also be trialled this month at Minden, Blacksoil and Haigslea-Amberley Road to determine if they will influence driver behaviour.

“Using radar, the signs are able to determine the speed of an approaching vehicle and display a warning message if the vehicle is exceeding the speed limit,” the spokesperson says.

Despite the department’s efforts to improve road safety, however, Queensland is set to eclipse last year’s road toll.

The latest statistics released on August 9 show 22 more people have died compared to the same time last year. The road toll is currently 223, with 31 of those fatalities due to crashes involving heavy vehicles.

The weekly report says 45 truck drivers had died this time last year. The latest statistics stem a growing trend in heavy vehicle fatalities, which rose steadily from 20 to 26 between 2004 and 2006 before hitting 38 in 2007.

The Warrego Highway is a main freight route in Queensland, with Cornack noting the number of trucks using the network more than doubled between 2004 and 2006.

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