Earlier this year the National Transport Commission (NTC) released the long-awaited consultation regulatory impact statement (RIS) on heavy vehicle law reform, have we missed the mark? Looking at the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL), has it hit to mark? Can we expect real change? Asks Mathew Munro, Executive Director Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association.
This review promised to be a ‘root and branch’ look at a law that fundamentally hasn’t changed in decades.
Well, firstly, you can’t fault the NTC in their consultation process. There was plenty of promotion and opportunities to have a say. The RIS is based on more than 250 formal submissions and 350 informal submissions received in workshops, email or online. After extensive discussions with our members the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association (ALRTA) lodged a formal submission to NTC on behalf of our six state associations and 700 grass roots members that included 108 recommendations.
It appears that NTC has listened to industry and government. The RIS contains more than 40 different options covering all facets of the law including access, fatigue, vehicle design, technology, accreditation, primary duties and chain of responsibility.
If you are a fan of technology there is a lot to like. The NTC claim both industry and governments want the HVNL to recognise new technology as an alternative means of compliance. It would be fair to say that the current law assumes a paper-based environment and the amount of paperwork drivers must carry is bordering on the ridiculous. Anything that promises to reduce this paper burden will be a relief to many.
But not everyone is a fan of technology. There was a rigorous debate in the rural sector about whether or not to support voluntary electronic work diaries (EWD). While some saw EWDs as an easy way of reducing book keeping errors that attract disproportionately large fines, others saw it as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ with a ‘big brother’ real time monitoring and tracking system sure to follow – and they may be right.
The RIS proposes to enable the HVNL to be flexible in recognising the adoption of new technologies to manage safety risk. For example, ‘seeing eye machines’ could become an alternative to prescriptive fatigue rules and road access could be improved with real time tracking technologies. And you guessed it, there are already prominent government and industry players calling for these to become mandatory – but only if the rest of the rules are ‘right’.
Which brings us to fatigue and access.
Drivers almost universally say that the current HVNL forces them to drive when tired and rest when they’re not. Who is going to stop a truck to sleep in it when you could be home in 20 minutes? Overly prescriptive rules, coupled with a chronic lack of rest areas with decent amenities, frustrate productivity and can make some situations less safe.
The RIS examines options including simplified counting rules, simplified record keeping, moving to a risk-based system, widening the scope of regulated vehicles, applying new rules to high-risk drivers, improved assessment of fitness-for-duty and of course using technology to monitor fatigue in real time and mandating electronic records.
The RIS similarly includes a range of options for improving road access for higher productivity vehicles. Some of these include increasing GML to CML limits, marginally increasing vehicle length, modifying vehicle classes, decision deeming, independent review processes and recognising official maps in law.
While most of the proposals would be an improvement there is nothing that fundamentally changes the current access system. It is still the same vehicles requiring the same approvals from the same authorities in the same timeframes. Even if all of the options were applied together it would not remove B-double access to the farm gate from the permit system.
When asking the question, on heavy vehicle law reform, have we missed the mark? It is critically important to get fatigue and access right. Although the RIS does not include a cost : benefit analysis, it has always been clear that most of the safety benefits will come from better fatigue management and most of the productivity benefits will come from improved access.
ALRTA’s early assessment is that the RIS is not bold enough in recognising higher productivity vehicles as the modern standard in rural areas. B-doubles were novel decades ago and so permits made sense. Stock crates at 4.6m are also standard and used almost universally. It is time to recognise these changes and re-cast the access system so that ‘normal’ vehicles can undertake ‘normal’ tasks without unnecessary regulation.
If governments neglect this once in a generation opportunity to fix fatigue and access, Australia may also miss the boat on a technology-based revolution in heavy vehicle regulation, or worse, it could be the same old law but with big brother watching you.