Winds of Change

The push by the Australian Logistics Council for a National Operating Standard across the heavy vehicle sector has gathered momentum ahead of outcomes anticipated midyear from the Heavy Vehicle National Law review.

Although the debate around having a National Operating Standard is not new to the road transport industry, the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) for whom the initiative has remained an important crusade since it proposed mandatory telematics for heavy vehicles in 2011, has renewed its energies in promoting what it regards as an important next step towards improving safety around Australia’s critical supply chains.

Next month, with the Federal Government’s deadline for consultation looming, it expects to gain some traction with federal ministers by aligning the National Operating Standard with the ongoing Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) review.

Alignment with the HVNL review helps undergird the importance of having suitable audit standards so that the auditors themselves can be regulated by national law. That way, at least in theory, greater consistency can be afforded to the sector to reduce audit duplication.

Announcements pertaining to the National Operating Standard this year haven’t always been met by industry with open arms although, to its credit, the ALC has, through ongoing communication and regular updates, done its part to allay some of the fear and confusion resultant, sometimes with good cause and sometimes without, when government looks to expand its increasing powers over the private sector no matter the supposed objective.

Any concentration of power, even in the guise of safety, the form it most often takes when governments insist on increasing their reach, will be cautioned by members of private industry especially from those who are most vulnerable to those new powers wielded by recently bolstered bureaucracies.

According to Rachel Smith, ALC Policy and Advocacy Director, one of the common misconceptions in relation to the operating standard is that it would be used as a compliance measure. That simply, she says, is not the case.

“We’re really intending this to be a risk management tool and more about setting the standard for the sector rather than an operating licence,” Rachel says. “An operating standard is not a prequalification which is essentially what a licence is. It’s actually a standard the industry would have to hold themselves to account.”

Rachel Smith, newly appointed ALC interim CEO.

The ALC understands from fatality figures involving heavy vehicles that around 80 per cent of these incidents are attributable in fault to a light vehicle or passenger vehicle. Less is known, however, of the remaining 20 per cent.

Having access to that data, Rachel believes, might hold a key to unlocking evidence that could reduce these types of serious accidents.

“That data needs to be interrogated even further,” she says. “We’re not saying all the reported fatalities where a heavy vehicle is involved is the heavy vehicle driver’s fault, but we are saying that within that remaining proportion of 20 per cent that we could reduce it by having a National Operating Standard.”

In those rare occasions a heavy vehicle is involved in a fatality, under the proposed mandatory telematics the onboard data would be available as part of any subsequent investigation.

Mandatory telematics also brings with it the concept of having a federal hub where all data including intellectual property pertaining to trip times, load bearing and customers, is centralised. Naturally, in an era of increasing cyberattacks, in which a conglomerate such as Toll is still vulnerable, any company that is smaller and especially independent, have good reason to be nervous.

In the instance of the National Operating Standard any data shared with the government, according to Rachel, would be deidentified unless it was accessed for the purposes of an investigation.

“If there was obvious movement outside a bell curve situation or a line in a consistent manner or an outlier then it may, for argument’s sake, be interrogated further,” she says. “But if you’re doing the right thing and you’re within the standard deviation of what’s expected of that particular element, whether it’s speed or fatigue then that wouldn’t be interrogated further.”

Should an operator, for example, deactivate their speed-limiter and it was obvious in the data produced by the vehicle and a near miss or hazard ensued and was subsequently reported, at that point the incident may be recorded. Only unlawful behaviours would be subject to further scrutiny.

Otherwise, any data shared with the government, such as the information supplied in freight data hubs, is for planning and legislative purposes, not policing.

While ensuring each heavy vehicle is installed with equipment meeting international standards that records driving hours and location for use in investigations of alleged breaches of the HVNL, data can also be used for applying for access to routes which in turn helps manage safety outcomes especially for high productivity and Performance-Based Standards approved vehicles.

The ALC suggests that a simple and effective way to introduce it would be through phased application over differing periods, starting from the day of legislation.

Under the proposal fatigue-regulated heavy vehicles would, in accordance with the standards recognised by the National Telematics Framework require telemetric equipment 12 months from the day legislation imposing the requirement commences.

Vehicles between 8- and 12-tonnes gross vehicle mass (GVM) would be grandfathered in two years from the day the legislation imposing the requirement commences; and light commercial vehicles between 4.5- and 8- tonnes GVM would be granted a three year grace period from the day the legislation imposing the requirement commences.

Staggering the phasing according to weight classes has been preferred purely to manage the size of such a task.

“You know when there is any kind of significant change it’s best to approach it like eating an elephant — one bite at a time,” says Rachel.

“Through a staged application it makes it easier for the industry to adopt the National Operating Standard. Say that you have a larger fleet, but you haven’t got some of the tools and systems in place it allows them to go for the scalable approach.”

Despite the ALC having the National Operating Standard set out as policy asks of the Commonwealth Government at the last two federal elections, the ongoing and unenviable ambition of welding together the disconnections in our globally integrated national supply chain are immense and, with advent of new technologies, ongoing.

Having a safety management system (SMS) that meets standards established in the HVNL is crucial to this agenda.

At present many operators consider the cost of enrolment in the heavy vehicle accreditation scheme outweigh the benefits of participating in the scheme.

It has prompted the ALC to encourage an amendment to the HVNL to facilitate a properly conducted audit of an operator’s SMS by permitting, through proper regulation, a standard that all SMS should meet.

That way its acceptance is covered by all accreditation schemes as well as other industry participants to reduce the number of incidents an operator has to undertake.

“There’s a duplication of accreditation and auditing schemes,” says Rachel. “By having a national operating standard the view is that it will bring the auditing and accreditation schemes in line and assist operators to comply with those accreditation and auditing schemes without having to provide different types of evidence.”

It’s understandable, following nearly nine months of intense activity sustained at near Christmas peak, that road freight operators might be hesitant to get involved in something that requires, at least at first glance, more after hours paper work.

But for respectable, lawful operators, the National Operating Scheme should not increase their administrative burden according to Rachel, who sees it bringing harmony across jurisdictions, various auditing schemes and accreditation schemes.

“If anything it should help you reduce your administrative burden because you’re doing all those things anyway,” she says. “What we’re trying to achieve longer term is that it will enhance the safety and productivity outcomes for the heavy vehicle operators and by that, if the minimum standard that businesses meet is set therefore it’s easy for everyone to report on regardless of which accreditation or auditing scheme they come under. That’s what we’re aiming for — everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet.”

An apparatus employed to iron out the creases that remain where jurisdictional differences leave authorities with inconsistencies to police extends also to the issue of what is known as vehicle phoenixing. These are the occasions where an operator who has a compliance record with authorities simply moves locations and commence re-operating.

At present some jurisdictions don’t require the operator to provide a garaging address.

The ALC wants an address attached to a vehicle to create an audible trail. For smaller operators who might have trucks parked up on a private property such as a residential address, they would have to update it should they expand their facilities and use a commercial depot to house the growing fleet.

“From a community safety perspective we believe this should be limited as much as possible and that’s where the garaging of vehicles comes in,” she says. “However, what we are after is the actual place at which the heavy vehicle is ordinarily garaged and operates. If it happens that the person has moved interstate and acquires an infringement, two offences would apply — failing to advise the regulator under the National Operating Scheme and a registration offence.”

Another contentious area of the National Operating Standard is the proposed operator capital requirement in which a registered operator would need to have appropriate capital on hand to ensure efficient operation and maintenance of their heavy vehicles.

This proposal has its detractors, namely suspicious independent operators like owner-drivers and mum and pop transport businesses.

Fears it would create yet another barrier to entry for new operators and reduce the ability of small fleets to compete with the national carriers, is unfounded according to Rachel who points out a minimum requirement for a transport business to prove it is solvent can be as simple as a letter of referral from an accountant.

“Proving capital within a small business can be as easy as a letter provided by an accountant once a year,” she says. “The view is that as long as you can prove that you are solvent that’s enough. Once again because it’s a National Operating Standard it’s not a prequalification.”

Preventative action through maintenance, as lawfully required, can demonstrate an operator is compliant and dispel any charges of negligence should fault be attributable to one of the parties involved in an accident.

From an administrative perspective, operators who perform their own bookkeeping like many of them do inhouse, correctly cataloguing receipts and invoices will make it easier to find evidence of solvency and compliance.

Put another way, it gets industry to think about what the minimum standard it should be achieving is according to Rachel.

“It’s not meant to be overly onerous,” she says. “If smaller operators have a budget for their business for the year and it had a maintenance line that would be sufficient.”

A larger business, less willing to hand over its budget for the year, would only require a letter from their accountant.

Operationalisation of the standard is high on the current agenda although the ALC is reluctant to accomplish this separate from industry. It remains in their interest to be as transparent as possible with their members and industry partners.

After the midyear deadline, one of its first priorities will look to incorporate more industry representatives into its safety committee. ALC members, in large part, are for having more consistency across the sector according to Rachel. She says the National Operating Standard is intended to be scalable in accordance with the size of the business in question.

“Meeting the requirement of having a telematics system doesn’t have to be overly complex. It could be as basic as mobile phone,” she says. “It’s not meant to hamstring the industry by any means it’s just meant to have a common set of standards that that sector agrees to operate with.”

The ALC has received many calls from operators wanting to talk about the standard. Most of the comments have been supportive once they understand that they are already managing many of these protocols and processes daily.

“I think that’s a really key message. If you’re a lawful and an above-board operator none of this should be foreign to you,” she says. “As more people adopt these technologies, the quicker the technology advances as well because it makes it more cost effective for the whole sector then.”