Release date: 2/11/2016
by Steve Skinner
Electronic work diaries (EWD) are "doomed to fail" without also reforming the trucking industry, says one of Australia’s top transport fatigue researchers.
EWD's are a "side issue" to the main cause of fatigue, which is commercial pressures in transport, says Professor Ann Williamson from the University of New South Wales.
"There’s nothing wrong with electronic work diaries in themselves, but I don’t think they are going to solve any problems when the problems are about the way work is done in the industry," Williamson says.
"There’s no point in putting electronic diaries in trucks where the truck drivers are being motivated to push the envelope.
"It won’t work, it puts extra pressure on and is just doomed to fail.
"The worry is they will become the main focus of enforcement for truck drivers who will have these inflicted on them.
"I think that has a real danger that it will just add to the stress and the tension that drivers already experience about ‘I’m late, my customers are waiting for me, but damn, the logbook is coming up as well and they will know that I’m two minutes over – or 10 minutes over if you have an 8-minute leeway – and I’ll be in trouble for it’.
"That isn’t helping anyone really when the reason I’m over is because the traffic was bad and all the realities of doing this kind of job.
"So I don’t think EWD’s really solve anything.”
Williamson says tougher enforcement in general is "fine to a point", but won’t tackle the root economic pressures behind excessive hours, speeding and poor vehicle maintenance.
Amongst other things she advocates the return of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal – of which she was a part-time member – or something like it.
Williamson was speaking at the recent Australasian Road Safety Conference in Canberra, where she was awarded the annual top gong for road safety professionals.
She is director of the Transport and Road Safety Research Centre at the University NSW, and amongst other trucking issues has been researching driver fatigue for decades.
Long-distance drivers are working longer his than ever, with a recent survey for the National Transport Commission concluding that the average is nearly 70 hours.
“That’s too long,” Williamson says, repeating the controversial call she has previously made for allowable driving hours to be reduced.
About two thirds of long-distance drivers are now on basic fatigue management (BFM), which allows up to 84 hours a week legally, with some working more than 100 hours a week.
Williamson said 84 hours with only seven hours continuous break is not enough to allow a decent family life and enough sleep.
Most awards elsewhere in the economy stipulate a 38 hour week.
She believes being allowed to driver for six hours straight without a rest break under BFM is too much.
Half the drivers in a recent study reported that at some stage in their career they have drifted across lanes, nearly half have had an ear miss caused by fatigue, and more than a third have nodded off behind the wheel at some time.
Williamson says what’s needed is a more sustainable payment system which would enable drivers to work less hours for the same pay. This would involve a payment per hour rather than a payment per trip; or better alliances for non-driving time in trip rates.
She says studies show less than a quarter of long-distance drivers are paid for waiting, and less than half are paid for loading and unloading.
A survey of drivers by her research group published in 2013 found that of the minority of both employee and owner-operator long-distance drivers who were being paid per hour, most of them actually eared as much money as the majority on trip money – but for an average eight hours less work per week.
“That was quite shocking,” Williamson says of the trip money drivers. “after all that extra effort, because they’re doing much longer hours, they are not actually paid more.”
She says she recognises the need for logbook flexibility so that drivers aren’t “stuck in the middle of nowhere”, away from their families but unable to get home if they are not tired.
She supports the flexibility involved in advanced fatigue management (AFM) but says it should be based on drivers’ needs and safety, rather than customer or company operational needs.
Williamson delivered a keynote address on heavy vehicles at the road safety conference. She said the wider society is sponging off the hard work of truckies.
“We can’t have the rest of us capitalising on a trucking industry that’s willing to do trips for less than what it actually costs,” she said. “That’s unfair and it’s wrong.”
The night before her address and interview with Owner//Driver, Williamson was awarded the prestigious 2016 Australasian College of Road Safety Fellowship.
The ACRS includes academics, researchers, government officials, community organisations and private companies. Its president is former long-term executive director of the Australian Automobile Association, Lauchlan McIntosh AM.
“Professor Williamson has contributed enormously to excellence in road safety research and to providing a strong evidence base for effective road safety interventions,” McIntosh said.
An ACRS press release adds: “Professor Williamson’s personal commitment has seen her contribute her own time to various road safety and injury prevention committees and to State and Federal Parliamentary road safety inquiries.”
NO RSRT REGRETS
The press release doesn’t mention it, but Williamson was also a part-time member of the ill-fated Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT).
Williamson was one of the three tribunal members who decided not to delay the fateful payments order for the long distance and supermarket sector, even after the Transport Workers Union (TWU) had relented and was willing to accept a delay.
She does not concede that the bombshell decision in early April to forge ahead, after Easter hearings, was a mistake, and is an unapologetic supporter of the RSRT or something like it.
She says the link between low rates and safety is undeniable, based on several peer-reviewed studies.
She says the link between low rates and safety is undeniable, based on sever peer-reviews studies, and disputes that better pay would simply create an incentive for greedy drivers to do yet more work.
"We’re not talking about creating instant millionaires.”
Williamson says the RSRT was well and truly aware of the major issue of back-loading, and insists this was taken into account in the average rates set. She says trips should be paid according to the costs, not the destination, and that much lower rates for backloading "is at the heart of a lot of the problems we are having”.
Without naming any organisation she says there was a lot of misinformation going on at the time of the RSRT’s demise, as well as a lack of information.
"To this day I don’t understand how the politics ended up the way it did," she adds.
WAITING TO UNLOAD
Williamson says the baby was thrown out with the bath water with two key RSRT orders – mandatory 30 day payments to subcontractors; and owner-drivers being paid for waiting time and loading/unloading.
Even many of the RSRT’s staunchest critics agree that these elements are essential to a sustainable trucking industry if they are applied across the board and benefit all operators and employees.
Williamson says customers should have to pay demurrage to trucking companies if their vehicles and drivers have to wait.
"Someone has to pay, and if the customer is causing the wait, it should be the customer’s cost.
"Some (trucking) companies are trying to get remunerated for waiting time but it’s relatively few.
"I realise that a lot of operators are nervous about pushing customers, but it falls under chain of responsibility.
"A customer who makes a driver’s work time go longer by making him wait for a couple of hours while they get their act together, that’s just as unsafe as any other thing you might do.
"If there’s a cost to having a driver sitting around waiting for a load … I think miraculously we will get more efficient.”
Williamson believes operator licensing is a "no brainer", and apart from anything else would enable all operators to be emailed and kept informed of the latest developments in regulations – something which she says didn’t happen during the RSRT saga.
She says apart from excessive hours, other fatigue-related risk factors for crashes are night driving; driving for more than four hours straight; and empty loads. These can triple the risk of a crash.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Owner Driver.
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