The story behind the headline statistics

There’s an old adage: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

As this Government continues to push a negative narrative around trucks and roads, favouring its investment in rail, public transport and cycle ways, we are seeing a lot of statistics being thrown around.

The Road to Zero consultation on road safety, released this week, is a bit of a case study.

In Focus Area 3, Work-related road safety, firstly, it says: While trucks are not involved in significantly more crashes/km than other types of vehicles, these crashes are far more likely to be fatal, accounting for over 20 percent of road deaths. This is a highlighted statistic.

There are no details such as, who was at fault? What caused the crash? If a car crosses the centre line and crashes into a truck, sheer physics tells you the car will come off second best. But this does not mean the truck driver was at fault. Also, that leaves another 80 percent of road deaths caused by something else.

The discussion document goes on to say: We need to improve our understanding of the size of the challenge. To properly address the problem of work-related road safety, we need to clearly understand it. While we can piece together data from a range of sources to get an understanding of the total level of harm, we do not currently have the full picture of the key risks at play and harms that are occurring. Improving this data will help us to better target our efforts on work-related road safety, giving us a better understanding of the causes of work-related crashes, the types of vehicles involved, and the industries and sectors that have the highest levels of harm. There are also opportunities to work with the private sector to better share and coordinate work-related road safety information.

We agree with this. Let’s look at all the data before throwing stones. Let’s get the full picture behind the headline statistics.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where the headline wins and no one cares about the rest of the story.

Another case in point happened last week (12 July), with Justice Minister Andrew Little quoted as saying professional drivers who kill on New Zealand roads should be held to a higher legal standard of accountability than other road users. This is despite there being three existing laws that already allow this. The Road Transport Forum (RTF) has asked Minister Little to provide evidence to back his opinion.

While the Government stresses its focus on road safety, it rejects investment in quality roads. It’s not just truck drivers pointing out the poor design of some roads, and the dangerous deterioration of others.

The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council says New Zealand is at an “infrastructure crisis point” and advocates for the 12 roading projects presently on hold or under review to proceed, possibly with private investment. But the Transport Minister Phil Twyford says that would be “really bad policy”. He says none of those roads would have enough traffic on them to pay for them. By that count, the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which had a 0.8 benefit/cost ratio, would never have been built.

This Government’s approach to road safety can be confusing and conflicting. It seems to be captured by the “climate emergency” agenda and a desire to get any fossil-fuelled vehicles off the roads. That’s all very well if you live in the centre of a big city and have choice. But it takes choice away from those of us who live in the suburbs, provinces and rural New Zealand and those who drive the economy by getting the exports we rely on to survive, to market.

The full suite of transport modes that don’t rely on fossil-fuels simply do not exist. And it remains to be quantified just what it will cost to run everything on electricity, and if there is even the capacity in New Zealand.

The Road to Zero name is in itself, confusing. Zero implies none, yet the strategy aims to cut road deaths by 40 percent in the next decade. This is a laudable goal and the RTF will be making a submission.

Discussion doesn’t mean we don’t fully support a road safety plan that reduces deaths and harm. It means we want to hold this Government to account on its road safety promises.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Where the rubber hits the road

One of the best parts of my job is getting out and about to speak to the people running freight companies and finding out what’s going on where the rubber hits the road. Yesterday, with the National Road Carriers chief executive David Aitken, I was able to spend time talking to five Auckland-based companies about opportunities and issues, and there were many recurring themes that line up with what the Road Transport Forum is advocating for on the industry’s behalf.

We saw a tremendous commitment to health and safety and looking after staff. Technology that detects driver fatigue is definitely life-saving and even those who weren’t so keen on it in the first place, have experienced its benefits first-hand. This technology alerts drivers who may close their eyes due to fatigue by shaking their seat, an alarm noise, and an alert to their company so someone can check they are OK. Even the best of drivers can experience fatigue, so it makes sense to invest in solutions like this.

One of the companies we visited, Mainstream, is bringing some creative thinking to health and safety and instead of the traditional high-visibility vests, they have designed their own high-vis shirts. They are made from recycled plastic, so get the environmental tick, and model a rugby league shirt because Mainstream also sponsors the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns rugby league teams. The photo is me and Mainstream managing director Greg Haliday with one of the shirts.

Yesterday, we saw good companies, employing plenty of people and looking after their employees, and running businesses that keep New Zealand moving. If you look around you, pretty much everything that makes your everyday life tick over came to you via a truck.

So, it is disappointing to hear about some of the issues that are rooted in the anti-road ideology of the current Government. Resoundingly we heard:

  • Infrastructure – the state of some roads is unsafe due to lack of spending on upkeep, poor design and the wrong surface for the environment, and change of use (what were country roads in Auckland now major thoroughfares due to urban sprawl) – this is coming from people who have been using these roads day-after-day, year-after-year
  • Road user charges (RUC) and fuel taxes are increasing, but less is being spent on roads that need to be upgraded/improved/built and in fact, vital major roading projects have been de-funded
  • Money that should be used on roads is being siphoned off for political gain on cycle ways and rail – while rail is part of the transport network, those that use it say it is slow, expensive, unreliable, and up to 50 percent of the time, late
  • Getting the right staff – who pass pre-employment drug testing – requires better immigration pathways so drivers from countries such as the Philippines can be guaranteed a long-term career and a settled lifestyle
  • The emphasis on road safety needs to be broader than speed – professional drivers see distraction as the biggest threat to them eg. car drivers on mobile phones, and they see little policing of that and the other big threats, alcohol and drug abuse
  • Legalising recreational marijuana use and the impact that will have on safety sensitive businesses such as road transport, given the lack of any regulatory regime for road safety behind that.

The romantic notions this Government has around rail is a real concern. Rail can never match the efficiency and speed of road freight. It can’t deliver door-to-door. It’s not suitable for essential goods that must be transported within tight time frames, such as medicines and fresh food. Yet the Government plans to pour billions and billions of dollars into a rail infrastructure that is well past its use-by date. This is at the expense of roads, that all New Zealanders use to get where they need to go and receive all the goods they need to live. It makes no sense at all.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Illegal and unsafe behaviour must be stopped

The road transport industry has been hit by some publicity recently that could be seen to put industry employment practices into a dim light and I want to address that.

There is video footage in the public domain that appears to show practices the Road Transport Forum (RTF) considers completely unacceptable in the trucking industry. We believe the behaviour on the video is not indicative of wider industry practices. The video footage relates to a matter before the Courts and I will not comment on that.

I will say, that we strongly support endeavours to weed out illegal behaviour that compromises the safety of workers and the New Zealand public, including the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) increasing its regulatory and compliance audits on the industry.

All road transport employees are employed under New Zealand law and their contracts and work conditions must reflect that. As such, employees are entitled to regular breaks, which they must be allowed to take. Employers cannot ask their employees to break the law. As part of good employment practices, employers should ensure employees are aware of what they can do if they feel unsafe in the workplace.

There’s information about employment on the government’s Employment New Zealand website (www.employment.govt.nz) and at Employment Agreement Builder to assist employers in meeting the law and getting it right. The RTF does not accept workers being employed without contracts as that is against the law.

I also want to be very clear that as an industry body, we advocate on behalf of road transport businesses to allow for workers from overseas to come to New Zealand to work for them. We want to support employing New Zealanders first, but there is simply too big a gap between the jobs that need to be filled and the New Zealanders available.

Any migrant workers are covered by New Zealand employment law. They have the same rights as citizen workers and should not be exploited.

It’s important that the trucking industry – and all industries – understand that it’s likely that sourcing migrant labour will become harder as the Government focuses attention on training and employing Kiwis as a first priority. Rules around this will likely become more evident over the next few months. As I have said above, investing in training all staff, paying them fairly, and allowing them their rest and break periods, should be non-negotiable for all trucking operators.

As an industry body we work with government regulators to ensure the road transport industry is constantly improving health and safety. We believe that technology that is available now, and will be developed in the future, will contribute to this. For example, electronic logbooks can ensure an appropriate record of hours worked and breaks taken, as per employment law, particularly if aligned with GPS information.

At RTF we are working hard to attract workers to the road transport industry and to show career pathways that are rewarding. That can quickly be derailed by bad publicity, even if that publicity is only reflective of one or two industry players. Perception is reality.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Slow road speeds, slow economy

As a country reliant on export dollars to maintain our great way of life, transporting goods on trucks, via roads, is the lifeblood that keeps the New Zealand economy moving.

Our roads are like the arteries in a human body. Arteries pump blood around your body to keep you alive, and most people are conscious of keeping those vital arteries healthy. If we want to keep our economy healthy and alive, roads must be treated as essential to that.

Road quality must be improved and maintained to a level that ensures goods can be moved in the most cost-effective way. That means, safely and without delay. This is getting increasingly important as the world wants more of our primary products, and the Government pushes for a much higher investment in forestry.

Regional roading infrastructure is critical to transporting our primary products from the farm or orchard gate to processing and markets, and the logs out of the forest to the port. While these movements can be a combination of road and rail, road will always be integral and its investment dollars should not be moved wholesale to rail.

Yet the Government is deferring significant road building and improvement and focusing on things like slowing speeds to allegedly make roads safer. Earlier this month Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter said speed limits on “the most dangerous roads” could drop to 80km per hour, as part of its road safety plans. This has some worrying implications for productivity and meeting market demands for goods.

Setting speed limits needs to be about more than safety. Mobility and the environment need to be balancing priorities in any decision making. And the environment is something we would expect this Government to focus on.

Slowing down heavy vehicles may in fact, increase their impact on the environment, with a rise in emissions at decreasing speeds. Without getting technical, this is to do with fuel and engine performance at various speeds, with that being different for trucks than for cars.

We want policy that solves problems. To do that, all factors need to be considered. At the moment it feels like the road safety focus is on the trimmings of median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening. A $1.4 billion spend over three years sounds like a lot for that. This policy was announced six months ago and despite the fact we are almost 20 percent through the period, we know precious little about the critical roads where it is to be spent. It sounds like another announcement without any detail or policy behind it.

If it is at the expense of quality road surfaces, and road building projects that could reduce travel times and congestion, as well as making roads safe, then we question that.

And if slowing down the traffic is because there isn’t money to spend on making the road surface safe and to avoid road building projects that could reduce travel times and congestion, then we question that as well. Under the Land Transport Rule: Setting of Speed Limits 2017, the Road Transport Forum, among others, is to be consulted on proposed speed limits and I look forward to that consultation.

Ms Genter refers to the “most dangerous roads” being the target for speed reductions. We need to know what determines “most dangerous”. If it is roads without median barriers, then that’s most of the South Island. If it’s hundreds or thousands of kilometres, then that will severely impact the productivity of New Zealand and our ability to export goods at prices markets will pay.

Each additional cost to transporting goods costs every New Zealander.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Let’s take a serious look at road safety

April 2019 was the deadliest month on New Zealand roads in 10 years – 45 people dead, and many more lives impacted. It’s tragic and it brings into focus the need for something to be done about New Zealand roads and the way we drive.

It’s equally important that when tragedies occur, we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction. It’s essential to look at the “why?”. Once we understand that, we are best placed to take a strategic, long-term view to provide lasting solutions.

The Government has indicated road safety is a priority and the Road Transport Forum is encouraged by this. We certainly want to be at the table when solutions are designed, as we represent the commercial road users who keep the New Zealand economy moving by getting all the essentials delivered to your door, or your store.

In December last year, Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter announced a $1.4 billion, three-year programme to make New Zealand’s highest risk roads safer.

They said, the Safe Network Programme will make 870 kilometres of high volume, high-risk State Highways safer by 2021 with improvements like median and side barriers, rumble strips, and shoulder widening.

Once complete, the improvements are expected to prevent 160 deaths and serious injuries every year.

Absolutely, this is important. But we need to be careful not to think a bit of window dressing will provide long term solutions. The links between road use, driver behaviour, and road safety need to be fully explored.

A strategic look will determine things such as:

  • Statistics – what’s causing these accidents? If it is a drunk driver, no amount of road improvements will matter. If it is road design and increased use, then let’s find the best solution.
  • Is more traffic on the road causing more wear and tear that is not being addressed in time? Where’s the strategy to ensure roads remain fit for purpose, that is, to keep the New Zealand economy moving for commercial road transport users, as well as provide access for tourists and private road users.

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours with John Hickman, of J.D. Hickman in Taranaki. John is a legend in the road transport sector, building up from his original one truck to over 100 trucks today. John is very concerned about the state of New Zealand roads. In a quiet tour of the surrounding highways and local roads, John was able to point out to me their appalling conditions – see the photo above. He’s concerned for his drivers having to drive on sub-standard, poorly constructed roads for hours each day, and for his vehicles and the wear and tear and additional costs that are occurring. Newly built highways, such as the poor quality Kapiti Expressway, demonstrate there is something amiss in our road building. What’s of even greater concern, is a reduction in the highways budget of 15% since the Government took office. Part of the safety equation is well designed, modern highways.

The RTF urges Wellington decision makers to consider long-term strategies for a safe, efficient and sustainable transport network that meets economic realities and business growth plans. There are already many parts of New Zealand where the strain is evident and the economy is impacted by traffic delays.

We are concerned that the ongoing disruption at the New Zealand Transport Agency – currently without a permanent chief executive or a Board Chair – threatens to put the vital issue of roading infrastructure, and with that road safety, out of sights and minds.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum