The review of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) currently being undertaken by the National Transport Commission is a valuable opportunity to build on progress made to date enhancing the safety of the heavy vehicle industry.
In many respects, the current HVNL reflects the compromises that were considered necessary to convince most (but not all) jurisdictions to sign up to the 2011 Intergovernmental Agreement on Heavy Vehicle Regulatory Reform.
However, the law clearly needs reform to be fit for purpose for the 2020s and beyond, so that it better reflects the nature of the industry, encourages and embraces the use of technology to deliver safety and productivity improvements, and ensures those operating the nation’s heavy vehicle fleet are meeting an agreed set of national standards.
The Analysis of Heavy Vehicle Safety Accreditation Schemes in Australia undertaken for the National Heavy Vehicle NHVR (NHVR), commonly known as the Medlock report, found that based on the 2014 Survey of Motor Vehicle Use by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 466,545 vehicles were rigid trucks whilst 96,226 vehicles were articulated vehicles.
Yet the same report also found the number of operators participating in accreditation schemes such as the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme (NHVAS) was significantly lower.
Plainly, this suggests a high degree of reluctance to participate accreditation schemes currently on offer.
The HVNL review process has seen many industry participants expressing concern about key features of current accreditation arrangements.
These include the cost of obtaining accreditation in the first instance, the fact that accredited operators do not feel they are experiencing reduced levels of enforcement activity and ongoing concerns regarding auditor quality.
Accreditation is used for two purposes in the HVNL.
The first is to ensure safety outcomes, and the other is to gather information used to make decisions about permitting access to road networks. However, the low uptake of the current accreditation schemes suggests the marketplace has decided the schemes aren’t fit for purpose.
ALC believes a practical solution is the development and implementation of a National Operating Standard for the heavy vehicle sector, which is easy to understand and would address the concerns above.
The key features of this standard have been extensively outlined in submissions ALC has put forward to the NHVR review process.
In particular, a National Operating Standard would require operators to maintain an audited safety management system (SMS) that meets specified standards, which could be made by the NHVR, or alternatively a specialist safety body.
Safety management systems are a well-known tool designed to manage workplace safety. These are used in a number of industries with significant safety risks, including the aviation, petroleum, chemical, railway and electricity sectors.
One of the SMS standards should be a requirement that the SMS must require an operator to maintain a system complying with the registered industry code of practice made under Part 13.2 of the HVNL (commonly known as the Master Code).
This would provide assurance that an operator has in place systems promoting compliance with the chain of responsibility provisions of the HVNL; and would also facilitate a common basis for the conduct of safety audits.
Another vital element of the proposed National Operating Standard would be to ensure operators have sufficient capital available to maintain vehicles to an appropriate standard.
Any financially troubled or under-capitalised business is tempted to cut corners.
It is an unfortunate reality that sometimes, in the search for savings through reductions in discretionary spending, vehicle maintenance may be neglected.
This obviously increases the chance of an accident related to mechanical problems.
The community must have confidence that heavy operators have sufficient funds available to meet their obligation to undertake regular and appropriate vehicle maintenance.
Similar requirements are already imposed in other sectors, including for those operating passenger transport services in NSW.
If such arrangements are deemed suitable for passenger transport services, there is no reason why a similar standard should not apply for freight transport.
Ensuring that all heavy vehicle operators are complying with a nationally consistent set of clear, easy-to-understand standards will help boost safety within the industry – and provide assurance to the wider community that they are sharing the roads with heavy vehicles maintained to an appropriate standard.