Nov 14, 2017

Should we demand more of heavy vehicle drivers?

It's time to consider if heavy vehicle driver licensing should require that applicants understand the risks they pose for others and are committed to protecting their welfare

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Trucks and buses make up 5% of the national vehicle fleet but account for a fifth of road fatalities

A cyclist died yesterday morning in inner Melbourne following a crash involving a truck (Cyclist killed after colliding with truck in Northcote). The Greens spokesperson on transport, Senator Janet Rice, issued a media release sending condolences to the family and calling for a national commitment to road safety:

Enough is enough. There is a clear need for safe bike infrastructure to be a national priority, because leaving bike riders vulnerable to serious injury or death on our roads is not an option.

The Greens took a costed plan to the last election with $1 billion over four years as a federal funding commitment, to ensure that bike riders are safe on the roads, not exposed and vulnerable to events like this. We call on Malcolm Turnbull to recognise the urgent need to commit to safer paths and roads for people who ride.

According to the Australian Road Deaths Database, 49 cyclists died on Australian roads between 2011 and the end of September 2017 as a result of a crash involving a bus or a heavy truck.

Buses, rigid trucks, and articulated trucks were involved in 20% of cycling fatalities over the period, but together only account for 5% of vehicles in the national fleet (update: they account for 8% of all kilometres of vehicle travel).

Cyclists aren’t exceptional; much the same proportion of all non-cycling road users (18%) died in crashes involving large trucks and buses (the corresponding figure for drivers was 22%).

Large vehicles are a problem for all classes of road users (and for each other). What can be done? So far as cyclists are concerned, dedicated infrastructure is a key part of the solution, but that will take many years.

According to Victorian Transport Association’s chief executive, Peter Anderson, a large part of the problem is the skill level of those who drive these large and difficult to manage vehicles:

(Mr Anderson) called for tighter training and licensing requirements for heavy vehicle drivers in Victoria, where truck driver licences are granted on the basis of five hours’ on-site training and the ability to reverse a vehicle 50 metres in a straight line. There are no on-road driving hours required for a truck driving licence, compared to 120 hours required for a car licence.

The sorry history of trucks colliding with Melbourne’s Napier St rail overpass suggests there’s a serious problem with large vehicles. The bridge has been hit more than 70 times in 12 years by trucks despite more than 20 warning signs posted on approach roads to alert drivers to the danger.

The Victorian Government is now moving to install laser sensors that detect over-height vehicles and activate a system of red lights and warnings. The track record of collisions suggests this won’t be enough; there’s a bigger problem here.

As I noted recently, it seems there’s a large number of truck drivers who simply can’t provide the level of attention, or concern, required to avoid major incidents. This might be due to lack of technical skills or it might be rooted in a culture that gives insufficient priority to the wellbeing of other road users.

Other issues, like pay rates, might be part of the problem. Tighter licensing as proposed by Mr Anderson is a logical step, but it might not make a big difference if it focuses solely on technical skills and experience. It’s likely part of the problem is due to personal attributes, like attitude, that aren’t easily amenable to training.

I think it’s time to consider a heavy vehicle driver licensing system that demands much more of applicants, particularly their appreciation of the potential damage large vehicles can inflict on others, and their commitment to protecting the welfare of all road users. It’s likely such a move would be controversial, in part because it goes to personality and in part because it would make it harder to become a driver and consequently increase costs.


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8 thoughts on “Should we demand more of heavy vehicle drivers?

  1. wadholloway

    I’m a road train driver with nearly half a century of driving experience. I had to have a car licence for a year before I got my truck licence and when MC licences came in for b doubles/road trains I had to have one years truck driving experience plus about $1,000 training. I earn $150,000 a year so, much as I’d like a pay rise, rates of pay aren’t a problem either. I ride my bike when I can but commentators like you don’t consider the idiocy of bike riders attempting long distances on country ‘highways’ with negligible shoulders.

    1. meltdblog

      You get plenty of idiot cyclists around town too:
      But country roads are a difficult issue as training (and even recreational) rides of long distance have few other options. I’ve trained and toured along back country roads and had no problems beyond the usual impatient drivers who think cyclists shouldn’t be on the road at all. There are some good advertisements running through the UK recently “every lane is a cycle lane”. Just as drivers come across farm machinery or slow logging trucks on country roads we all need to remember we will come across cyclists too.

      1. Alan Davies

        Great blog Meltdblog!

  2. James

    It seems fairly obvious that being run over (going under the wheels) by a large vehicle such as a truck or bus is far more likely than being run over by a car. The larger wheels and ground clearance coupled with huge blind spots and poor manoeuverability, make them far more likely to be involved in a collision and for deadly collision results.
    Most truck and bus drivers do a pretty good job considering. Some leave a lot to be desired. Training for operation around vulnerable road users may help, as well as better vehicle design to reduce blind spots.
    With respect to the 120 hours a car learner driver must complete, from a mate who worked as a driving instructor around Melbourne, he said often the student would seek professional tuition for the final few hours when it is too late to break the bad habits they’ve learned from their parents (or other non-professional instructor). Numerous students he has recommended not take the test yet, and had to apply the emergency brake and grab the steering wheel on the way to a test – only to find later that the student has passed.
    There are a great many rules to learn, but safe operation around vulnerable road users seems to be largely ignored. Again, a parent with no idea how to safely pass a cyclist has instructed their offspring how to squeeze past. 1/1.5m advisory information from Vicroads falls on deaf ears, or worse makes drivers resent cyclists on the road even more.
    The police and legal system seem not to be very concerned by cyclists getting hit. The police seem reticent to lay charges against the driver after a collision, and if a case goes to court the jury of the driver’s peers will likely be drivers as well, so sympathise.
    A presumed liability where the operator of the larger and heavier vehicle should show they did everything reasonable to avoid a collision may help if it is backed up by stiff penalties, but these sticks don’t have the desired effect without a carrot to show how it should be done in the first place.
    Lessons from a professional driving instructor should be required in preference to hours with a parent.
    The driving instructor should be able to veto a test application.
    There’s no requirement in a driving test to demonstrate driving at highway speed or safe and sensible passing of cyclists.
    Perhaps Australia should adopt the German approach?

    1. Tom the first and best

      I get the impression that it is not just indictable offence jury trials that are avoided by the authorities in cycling and often pedestrian cases but also indictable offence triable summarily trials, summary offence trail and even some penalty notice offences that get avoided.

  3. wilful

    What percentage of kilometres driven are heavy vehicles? Way more than 5% I bet, so that figure is quite misleading.
    When I got my heavy rigid licence (a while ago) it was a two week course and a fairly demanding test , far more than simply reversing the vehicle, so either a lot has changed or whoever said that was making stuff up.
    I believe there are labour shortages in transport, with no willingness at all to pay drivers more money, so increasing the barriers to entry isn’t going to fly with businesses reliant on transport (which is most of them).

    1. Alan Davies


      Glad you asked and have updated article to include this variable. According to BITRE’s Australian Infrastructure Statistics Yearbook 2016, buses, rigid trucks and articulated trucks collectively account for 8% of all vehicle road kilometres of travel in Australia. Still a big difference relative to being involved in circa 20% of all road crashes. The big players in terms of kilometres of travel are cars (71%) and light commercial vehicles (20%).

    2. meltdblog

      Another approach is to look at the relative rates of car passenger (and driver) fatalities from heavy vehicle collisions at 12%, compared to the 19% for cyclist fatalities. So its an elevated risk but not wildly so, there is scope to improve under-run protection for vulnerable road users as I’ve discussed:

      The vehicle involved in the collision linked to was possibly a MR hence the comments about only needing a short “upgrade” to an existing car license. The drivers of heavier vehicles and combinations of course have been though much more experience to get their licenses in a well graduated system of progressing through larger and larger vehicles with no shortcuts.

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