Attenuator on standby to stop runaway trucks

Truck drivers whose brakes fail on the notorious South Eastern Freeway into Adelaide during upcoming roadworks will need to drive into the back of a stationary attenuator truck to stop their progress.

In a notification about the works, the Transport Department said one of the two arrester beds at the bottom of the freeway would need to be closed at certain times.

During these times a truck-mounted attenuator will be provided “for use by any errant heavy vehicle”.

South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA) Executive Officer, Steve Shearer, said it was a “very innovative, but mentally challenging approach”.

“It is basically a rigid truck with a massive rear shock absorber system built into it,” he said.

“Apparently it can withstand the impact of a fully loaded B-double travelling at 100km/h and will stop that truck.”

Shearer said he would spend time educating both local and interstate truck drivers about the changed conditions.

“From an engineering perspective there’s no question, this works,” he said.

“It’s been used elsewhere in the country and on some roadworks with lower speed events to protect the road workers, but the point we’ve made is it’s counter-intuitive for a truck driver.

“The human behaviour problem is getting truck drivers to understand what they’re seeing in front of them; and to be prepared to steer their truck directly into the back of the attenuator.”

More than 650,000 trucks descend the busy South Eastern Freeway every year, and the intersection at the bottom has been the scene of several fatal accidents involving out-of-control trucks over the past decade, including a crash in August 2014 that killed two people.

It also has a history of chilling near-misses, including an incident in September 2019 where the driver of a B-double ran a red light, narrowly missing a car attempting to make a right-hand turn.

The crash in 2014 prompted new rules forcing trucks to use low gear rather than brakes to manage the steep descent into suburban Adelaide.

This is, in fact, the standard procedure that all experienced and responsible truck drivers use when negotiating steep descents – it is a principle imbued into them as part of the training prior to obtaining a heavy vehicle licence.

This is a fact not lost on Shearer, who said 99.99 per cent of drivers do not have a problem, but that the one in one-thousandth per cent can kill multiple people and have done in the past.

“If they do get into trouble there’s nowhere else for the trucks to go other than straight through the intersection and lights,” said Shearer.

With the opening stages of roadworks having commenced, a nervous Shearer is frantically trying to get the message out to the industry about the changes ahead.

He said SA authorities tried to assuage his concerns by telling him there would be plenty of signs on the road to alert truckies to the closure of the arrester bed from February 28.

“But you don’t start looking for signs when your truck is out of control,” said Shearer.

“The biggest help they’ll get will probably be other drivers on the CB radio.”

Shearer’s awareness drive will also include having an attenuator on display for truckies to get familiar with at the official opening of the new SARTA HQ on 13 February.