Will better paid truckies make our roads safer?

A dangerous business: a fatal crash in Mona Vale in Sydney underlines the risks for professional drivers. AAP/ Tim Pascoe

With the Christmas season upon us and the roads full of holiday traffic, the deaths of nine people in eight crashes involving trucks since the end of November provide a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by both drivers and the public.

It is little known that death rates in the road freight transport sector are five times the national average and that in 2012 some 35% of all work fatalities were in the transport, postal and warehousing industry.

The seriousness of the occupational health and safety issues in road transport have long been known and studied.

A key finding of the research, and numerous government inquiries, has been the link between the structural features of the road transport sector and poor pay and working conditions for drivers.

Specifically, the logic of transport supply chains means drivers absorb the commercial pressure imposed by big, economically powerful businesses at the apex of the chain, through the imposition of penalties for late deliveries and through the potential of not renewing a contract.

Disturbingly, those academic conclusions have been supported by real world events – and noted in coronial reports into the deaths of truck drivers. A succinct and powerful summary of the effects of these commercial imperatives was provided by his Honour Judge Graham who (in sentencing a truck driver following a fatal collision that killed two people and seriously injured another), concluded in 2005 that:

Heavy vehicle truck drivers are still placed under what is, clearly, intolerable pressure in order to get produce to the markets or goods to their destination within a time fixed, not by rational consideration of the risks involved in too tight a timetable, but by the dictates of the marketplace. Or to put it bluntly, sheer greed on the part of the end users of these transport services.

In light of this evidence and frequent incidents on our roads (for example the recent case of a truck fatality on the M5 forcing its closure and traffic chaos), it is a little perplexing that the Minister for Employment Eric Abetz is undertaking a review of the Road Safety Remuneration System on the basis that it “impose[s] onerous and unnecessary compliance burdens”.

The Road Safety Remuneration Act (RSRA) came into operation in 2012 with the explicit intention of providing a means to overcome the structural features of the road transport sector. The aim was to hold all participants in the supply chain accountable for safety outcomes for drivers – not just direct employers but those businesses with the economic power to set the terms that flow down the chain.

The RSRA and the tribunal it created are innovative in that it attempts to address the inter-related issues of pay and safety and to do so not just for directly engaged employees but also for owner-drivers, the small business people of the transport sector.

The RSRT handed down its first orders on Tuesday, following 12 months of consultation with industry. Although the orders included some issues associated with transport supply chains, they did not deal with rates of pay.

In accordance with the Tribunal’s statement of 12 July 2013, the issue of rates of payment for road transport drivers is to be the subject of future proceedings of the Tribunal and so is not dealt with in this decision. Those future proceedings will also consider associated issues, such as methods for dealing with the issue, the different forms of payment and what constitutes work.

This does not augur well for truck drivers and the travelling public as the review may mean that the Tribunal never gets the chance to deal with the issue that is at the heart of safety problems in road transport - reasonable remuneration of truck drivers.

The RSRA was not without precedent. In NSW, since 1979 provisions of the Industrial Relations Act have acknowledged the vulnerability of owner-drivers who engage in only one contract.

Indeed even the Howard government acted to retain the NSW provisions for owner-drivers despite it contravening the general spirit of its Independent Contractors Act 2006.

However, this bi-partisan recognition of the peculiarities and particular dangers faced by truck drivers seems to be under threat. Minister Abetz was a fervent critic of the RSRA in opposition, dismissing the link between remuneration and road safety as a “myth and cynical”.

Abetz’s concern about “imposing” regulation upon employment conditions reflects a misunderstanding about the nature of regulation. Regulation is not just imposed by governments or tribunals or through legislation. In the absence of formal regulation, other regulatory mechanisms emerge to take precedence.

In the case of the road transport sector, diluting or disbanding the road safety remuneration system does not mean the transport sector is “unregulated”. It means the rationale of the market, the commercial logic of the supply chain, once again becomes the regulatory mechanism.

It means excessive economic pressure is brought to bear on transport companies, who do not then invest in proper maintenance of their trucks and on drivers, who face unrealistic deadlines in order to meet onerous contractual requirements.

The Review is charged with “assess[ing] the regulatory and economic burden of the Road Safety Remuneration System on participants in the road transport industry and the Australian economy generally”. Perhaps we would be better served by re-assessing the economic and social costs, and indeed the lives lost if we were without the “burden” of the Road Safety Remuneration System.

The disclosure statement of the author has been updated since publication.

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