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.