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Prime Mover Magazine

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Phil Taylor

The health of our nation’s truck fleet

July 2017

Those of you who are regular readers of my monthly column may remember that I used the line “lies, damn lies and statistics” to describe how some commentators were reporting on the new truck market last year. That same saying is very apt for describing the recently released information from the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) that details the state of health of our nation’s heavy-vehicle (HV) fleet.

Over the period August to November 2016, the NHVR coordinated the first-ever Australia-wide (except Western Australia) ‘health check’ of the Australian truck and trailer fleet. The numbers look like this: 364 HV inspectors were specially trained to undertake the project, there were 168 inspection sites across the country and three inspection methods were deployed – ‘periodic inspections’ (668 HVs); ‘roadside interceptions’ (5,357 HVs); and ‘invitation’, where specific vehicles/companies were invited to have vehicles inspected (1,105 HVs).

In all, a total of 6,115 trucks, 1,015 buses and over 3,267 heavy trailers were inspected and their ‘health’ recorded. Of the vehicles inspected 1.3 per cent were grounded due to serious safety issues – 82 prime movers and 64 trailers.

This first-ever national HV health check generated considerable data, some of which has now been published by the NHVR. There are two areas in particular I want to explore in detail here. The first is the age of our truck fleet. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) publishes its Motor Vehicle Census each year, the most recent version being January 2016. The ABS uses annual vehicle registration data that it collects from each state and territory road authority, for all cars, trucks, buses and trailers registered in each jurisdiction. Amongst other parameters, the ABS data includes the age of each vehicle that is registered. From this information, the ABS calculates and publishes the average age of the Australian truck fleet. As of January 2016, this average age was 14.4 years, one of the oldest in the western world. The NHVR’s HV health check however showed the average age of the trucks that they inspected to be much younger, at nine years. The NHVR explains the difference as, “trucks that are registered but not currently in service.” Now let’s consider this, the NHVR is saying that there is a large number of trucks that are registered but ‘not in service’? I don’t think so! It is not cheap to register a truck, so why would anyone register a HV and not use it? The NHVR in fact inspected just one per cent of all trucks known to be registered in Australia during its HV health check, so the more likely explanation of this age discrepancy is that the NHVR inspection regime simply ‘missed’ many of the vehicles that operate less frequently on our roads. “Lies, damn lies and statistics.” This issue must be better addressed in future ‘health checks’.

The second issue relates to the number of defects found versus the age of the trucks. The NHVR found that, “vehicle age is the strongest indicator of risk of major non-conformity.” That is, the older the truck, the more likely it is to have major safety defects. The NHVR found that when comparing major defect rates of trucks, vehicles under than two years of age are three times less likely to have a major safety non-conformity than units from four to seven years of age. Significantly, trucks aged over 13 years have a defect rate over eleven times higher than those of under two years.

For some time now we have known that Australia’s old truck fleet is polluting at a much greater rate than new trucks, causing undue health issues for our communities. We also know these same older trucks do not have the sophisticated safety systems that are present in new heavy vehicles, and now we have conclusive proof that these older trucks are operating on our road network with a much higher rate of safety-related defects, rates up to eleven times greater than those found on newer trucks. Government cannot ignore these facts.

Australia has an old truck fleet by global standards and the Truck Industry Council (TIC) again calls upon those leading our nation to put measures in place – measures that must include financial incentives – to renew the nation’s trucks fleet and provide better safety, health and environmental outcomes that will benefit road users and all Australians.

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