Courting Disaster

What best characterised the past year for one of the hardest working industries in the country was the long due recognition commercial road transport received in the public domain.

It was plain for all to see. Bereft supermarket shelves of essential goods were expeditiously replenished. Delivery drivers knocked on household doors in record numbers, braving conditions that government health agencies had deemed were simply too unsafe for the rest of us.

It was also a year in which people desperately wanted answers to questions stemming from the extraordinary circumstances they found themselves in.

The responses from those who have insisted we trust the science, namely government officials and academics, have been for many of us inadequate.

For every politicised natural disaster, dismal election poll and grossly mistaken health model, a type of fatigue is fast creeping in when it comes to media-approved expertise which has, time and again, been found wanting.

This is hardly new phenomena.

When acceptance of consensus is first shaped by bad faith arguments (the earth only has 12 years left!) a narrative prevails over facts under the guise of what looks and sounds like reality.

But is it? A few weeks back, a University of NSW academic issued a statement, in the interests of keeping our roads safe, commemorating the worst truck fatality in Australian history from 31 years ago.

Some of his supposed findings regarding protocols for long haul road transport and attitudes from drivers he claims to have spoken to have also apparently been taken from the same era.

Taking the Sunliner Express tragedy, the worst road fatality event our country has ever seen as his case study, Dr Christopher Walker, who calls himself a regulation and policy expert from UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, called for more regulatory reform in the truck industry based upon a disaster three decades ago on a notorious stretch of the Pacific Highway, long since widened and replaced in New South Wales.

The sleep deprived driver of the semi that careened into the Sunliner bus was at the time found to have excessive amounts of the stimulant ephedrine in his system by the coroner.

From that known fact Walker, ignoring the immense work that has gone on in the last few years in fatigue management, truck safety systems and Chain of Responsibility regulations postulates a circuit breaker is needed for an industry whose drivers he intimates are still half asleep and fuelled by drugs.

So that this doesn’t come off like cocktail hour policy made during small talk nibbles with colleagues who don’t work in for-profit industries, Walker insists he talks to drivers who he claims work up to 100 hour weeks, exceeding the legal limit of 72 hours over a seven day period.

“I’ve interviewed truck drivers, and they’ve said to me, ‘I’d get my pay in one hand, and my pills in the other’” he says, unaware the conversation, supposing it happened, might well have taken place in 1989 as well.

This doesn’t prove he gets down in the trenches any more than he is aware that the majority of commercial vehicles that have clocked up one million kilometres are not working on interstate linehaul, as he contends, but are consigned to controlled environments like yards and local deliveries in regional areas.

While noting that the rate of fatalities have decreased by an inflated 53 deaths in 1989 with 21 alone in that one accident to 15 last year he notes the spike in deaths of 200 in 2019 without mentioning swollen increases in heavy vehicle registrations, vastly escalating truck movements nor the usurpation of a manufacturing economy with that of a consumer-driven one.

These are all measurable real-world factors.

In the three decades since that fateful early October morning outside Grafton, the truck industry has proven it can do better. It has had to.

Improved safety protocols, driver monitoring technology, education resources and fatigue management have transformed operational safety.

It remains of paramount importance in an industry, as it was again this year, pushed to extremes.

It’s time for the grandees at universities and political think tanks to show us they are more than the obedient lapdogs of the administrative state, whose findings are too closely aligned to where the funding can be found. It’s time they did better.

Much better.

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