Trucks are prone to rolling over after colliding with overhead bridges, presenting a danger to other road users (source: Perth Now)
Trucks are prone to rolling over or losing their load after colliding with overhead bridges, presenting a danger to other road users. This smash happened in Bayswater, Perth in 2014 (source: Perth Now)

The Age reported yesterday that the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) is calling for more severe fines on freight companies and drivers whose trucks smash into overhead rail bridges.

This follows a crash in the CBD earlier in the week when a truck rolled on its side after striking a bridge – see Flipped truck full of Red Bull blocks Spencer and Flinders streets causing transport chaos. (1)

The paper reports there’ve been 224 instances in Melbourne of trucks colliding with overhead rail bridges since 2011. Drivers can be fined $758 and companies can be charged with the offence of failure to take reasonable steps to ensure observance of a low clearance sign.

Collisions with bridges are a serious problem around the world. They cause damage, they disrupt road and rail traffic for extended periods, and the propensity of trucks to roll over is a danger to other road users e.g. see Was cyclist’s death just a freak accident?

But will larger penalties for trucking companies and/or drivers provide the incentive to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the problem? I doubt it, especially those applying to drivers.

Big fines work in some situations, but not all. They’re pretty effective, for example, in deterring most motorists from running red lights.

That’s partly because the probability of detection is high (red light cameras); but it’s also because running a red light is usually a concious decision. It’s a gamble – “I reckon I can make it through on yellow, but given the size of the penalty I won’t take the risk”.

Smashing into an overhead rail bridge however is different; it isn’t a conscious choice. There’s only one possible outcome, so truck drivers who hit bridges aren’t taking a risk or playing the odds.

They don’t know they’re going to have a smash. It’s inadvertent – “I didn’t see it”. It’s a bit like the motorist who drifts five or six clicks above the speed limit without being aware of it.

Perhaps there’s the odd truckie who gets the height of his vehicle wrong (miscalculation) but in most cases I expect offenders simply didn’t see the hazard until it was too late.

It might have a short term effect, but ramping up penalties isn’t going to be effective in the longer run at making drivers concentrate better or see hazards better.

Would heftier fines induce freight companies to take stronger action? Given the damage to their vehicles and disruption to schedules caused by these smashes, they already have a big financial incentive so it’s not clear if a bigger stick is going to add a lot.

Another difficulty is many trucks are run by small firms or sole operators who survive on narrow margins. Some will be prepared to “take the risk” of incurring a fine – even a very big one – rather than invest voluntarily in expensive or dauntingly complex solutions. After all, the probability of an individual truck colliding with a bridge is very low.

It should be clear by now that bigger signs aren’t the complete answer. If you’re driving all day everyday then signs probably become white noise to many drivers.

They’re hard to distinguish from all the billboards and other urban visual detritus that screams and shouts for attention. After a while I suspect some drivers effectively become numb to streetside visual stimuli.

Grabbing and holding the attention of drivers is the sort of problem that ought to be helped by behavioural economics. This article explains how simple actions have had some success in India in reducing deaths at level crossings.

Better technology is another potential avenue. Custom GPS or radar-based systems that set off audible warnings might have potential.

It seems to me the more straightforward solution would be for road authorities to invest directly in better technical/behavioural solutions. Provided it can deliver the best outcome, the authorities should also consider directly regulating companies and drivers e.g. requiring them to install in-cab warning technology.

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  1. What a surprisingly banal headline for The Age. I’d have thought a smashed truck loaded with Red Bull would energise the sub editors at Fairfax to let fly with their trademark puns. But no, the headline gives readers the exact address (!) but no mention of the rail bridge even though that’s the point of the story.