TRUCK drivers are the elite of road users in Australia. They have a higher level of skills, far more experience and knowledge of the road than the average motorist.
There is one caveat to this statement, it refers to good truck drivers and fortunately that is the majority of truckies on our roads.
However, with Australia's spiking road death toll, the inadequacy of training for truck drivers has risen as one of the major safety and image issues on the highways.
There's nothing new about this, truckies have known for years of the danger of inexperienced truck drivers and the ease with which licences could be gained from shonky driver training outfits.
The inadequacy of driver training formally came to the fore last month with the publication of the Review of the National Heavy Vehicle Driver Competency Framework by Austroads.
The results of this study were, predictably, not inspiring.
The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) picked up the report and fired a salvo.
"The truck driver licensing system is an insult to Australia's expert, hard working truck drivers and must be fixed,” CEO Ben Maguire said in a media release on May 17.
Yeah Ben, we've known about this for a long time, we've been sharing narrow bridges in the dark early hours of the morning with approaching trucks and know it's a game of poker with our lives on the line.
Driver competency framework
In an effort to standardise driver training, The National Heavy Vehicle Driver Competency Framework was set up in 2011.
While this set of standards carries the name 'national' it has been adopted only by the three south-eastern states, New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria.
The Austroads' review was commissioned to gauge the current state of the framework.
The study shows clearly from interviews that the breakdown of the traditional training methods of young, aspirational drivers learning as teenagers on rural properties and in trucking yards and depots along with thousands of kilometres sitting beside Dad or an experienced driver as an 'off-sider' was not given any credit.
This traditional system, in many ways an informal apprenticeship, produced some of the best drivers on the highway today.
The review found that an approach that recognised competency as opposed to 'time served' in the current staged system of Light Rigid (LR), Medium Rigid (MR), Heavy Rigid (HR), Heavy combination (HC) and Multiple Combination (MC) falls short of reaching proficient driving standards unless it is based on genuine skill development to ensure safety outcomes.
The Austroads team gathered information from coroners' reports, Senate committee transcripts and investigations in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia into the issue of heavy vehicle licences and competency assessments by outsourced training bodies in exchange for money.
The Review identified 46 years old as the average age of truck drivers in 2018.
Only 4.8 per cent of truck drivers today are in the 20 to 24 age group compared to a 10.8 per cent average across all occupations, showing the transport industry is not attracting young people.
Twenty-eight percent of truck drivers fall in the 35 to 44 age group compared to only 22 per cent across all occupations.
This could reflect the late entry of workers to the industry, many of whom enter through the licensing system.
Insurance company NTI found 20 per cent of drivers aged 46 to 60 had less than 10 years experience.
For a long time the industry has been rife with stories of shonky training businesses set up to meet the needs of the shortage of truck drivers, peaking during the labour scarcity of the resources boom of some years ago.
Driver shortage puts pressure on employers to send a newly licensed driver on a long-haul interstate run as long as he or she meets the legal requirements of a particular state or territory.
The basic requirements under the law is only that the driver is licensed for the particular truck or combination. A short two-day Dangerous Goods course must be completed for drivers hauling DG and if a driver is of a particular age there are mandatory health checks.
While many transport companies have in-house training procedures in place, there is no legislative mandate for this to occur. So the way is clear for not-so-scrupulous operators to send drivers out with little experience.
How does a truck driver become expert?
Not by the licensing process. A high level of skills are developed by thousands of hours of driving, in some cases millions of kilometres.
Experienced truck drivers have their skills honed to instinctual reaction and build the experience to negotiate potential accidents.
This level of experience of driving on the wide varieties of roads, negotiating the nation's cities, learning safe loading and unloading practices, acquiring skills to make running repairs often in adverse weather conditions, being able to safely secure and monitor loads comes only with time and many thousands of kilometres.
These skills cannot be learned with brief one day or two day licence courses.
The current focus across the nation is on getting a licence rather than long-term skills development and training.
Most licence training barely touches on the knowledge required of how the weight of the unit reacts to different weather and traffic conditions, how a trucks handle different geographic conditions such as descending or climbing hills.
Licensing does not develop that unique ability of truck drivers to drive a kilometre ahead of where they are, crystal-balling likely accidents before they happen.
Gaining a licence does not develop these abilities and this is what the Austroads' review exposes.
Training's black hole
One important area driver skills is left out of the licensing system: fatigue management.
It defies logic that an area identified as one of the main causal factors of truck-related road deaths is fatigue management yet the approach in all states and territories is based on compliance and enforcement.
For sure, would-be drivers might be taught to fill out a work diary and understand the driving time limitations.
But managing fatigue is a black hole in driver training based on licensing protocols.
Yet we know that fatigue management can be learned. It must be learned!
Experienced drivers take it for granted, you learn almost by osmosis. You learn to stay alive.
But think back. In the early days of a career in interstate haulage, especially express work, you remember how a Brisbane to Melbourne run seemed a hell of a long way.
We battled with fatigue and slowly learned, over time, to manage our own biological clock.
We got to know the routes, where you needed to be at a particular time, to know you were on schedule, where you could grab half an hour here or an hour there.
These are important skills of a long distance driver and very different to the proscribed times of the work diary system.
To this day little is made of learning actual fatigue management even though such a hullabaloo raised by bureaucracies, compliance and enforcement agencies and researchers.
The Austroads' review has exposed severe inadequacies in the nation's driver training regime and the flawed and limited acceptance of the Competency Framework.
Where does that leave us? No different than a month ago with bureaucracies sticking to prescriptive enforcement rather than biting the bullet and actually improving safety on the road where it counts, supporting the person behind the steering wheel!