Danger alert for summer driving

In News7 MinutesBy GeorgiNovember 12, 2021

This summer will be like no other on New Zealand roads and a perfect storm is forming that has us very concerned about safety for truck drivers.

Lots of things are brewing that will lead to poor driving, directly impacting safety. Despite all the lockdowns reducing traffic this year, the Government’s Road to Zero imperative is looking poor, with 277 deaths as at 10 November, compared with 266 at the same time last year.

Through summer, a busy time for road freight, we will have all New Zealanders holidaying in New Zealand, because they are not allowed to go anywhere else – we won’t give up on that closed border. With the Government poised to head off on their holidays mid-December and not returning until after Waitangi Day, that is not going to change any time soon; not this summer anyway.

We’ve also got the debacle of the Auckland road border – if it stays, we can only predict carnage as Aucklanders try and escape the city they’ve been locked into for months. They won’t have driven much further than the supermarket in that time, and as we all know from previous lockdowns, it takes a while to get your eye back into driving if you haven’t done it for months. Once they clear the border traffic, they will put their foot down, and we can only expect more accidents from that.

People are also angry and stressed. It is not ideal to get behind the wheel for a long road trip if you are suffering either, or both, those emotions. It can make for distraction and poor decision making. Factors that will add to the risk will include summer heat, and the inevitable traffic jams.

There’s the possibility that KiwiRail staff will strike at the busiest time for freight and passenger movement, and that will put more pressure on truck drivers to deliver for New Zealand.

With a shortage of truck drivers already, there’s pressure on those who are working to perform miracles so all those Christmas and summer deliveries can be made. With our closed border and heavy restrictions, other countries have seen this is the right time to recruit truck drivers – there’s a global shortage – and we know Australia is working hard to get our drivers over there.

They have bonuses for people who can recruit drivers from New Zealand, and high hourly rates and sign-on bonuses for drivers who go there. Their country is largely open and you can get from there to anywhere in the world and back again – except here of course.

The prevalent angry and aggressive behaviour is a real risk for our drivers. This week Retail New Zealand held a Summit on Violence and Anti-Social Behaviour, because people working in shops are copping serious abuse. CEO Greg Harford told the summit:

“In retail rates of aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour from members of the public have doubled in the past year, on top of significant increases over the last few years.”

We’ve heard anecdotes of truck drivers being abused by the general public too, for allegedly spreading Covid-19. In one case the driver had stopped for a meal break and was abused. Imagine what that does to your psyche and then you have to head back out on the road and complete your day’s work.

Then there are the road conditions. This week there was a horrific accident near Levin where four people died.

Kāpiti Coast Mayor K Gurunathan described the stretch of State Highway 1 between Ōtaki and Levin as the “killing fields highway”.

The AA said that stretch of highway has been one of the highest risk pieces of New Zealand road for at least a decade. There have been 31 fatal crashes between Ōtaki and Levin on State Highway 1 between 2000 and 2019, according to data from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency.

We know there are many stretches of road that present similar risks all around New Zealand. Government underspending on road repairs and a lack of interest in new road infrastructure are real problems for road safety.

With this landscape for the next few months, it will be critical for operators to support truck drivers on multiple fronts. Think about if any driver training is required, or if there is any assistance that can be offered to manage stress and mental wellbeing.

Ensure management, despatchers and drivers are in regular contact and that you have processes in place to deal with aggression on the road, delays because of accidents/border control, and interruptions to driver rest time by aggressive people. Make sure drivers get the rest they need.

If you create a safe and supportive environment for your drivers, they might be less inclined to hop on a plane and take that shiny offer in another land. We need them here.

Let’s do everything we can to keep the road toll from exploding. In 2020 there were 320 lives lost, four over the Christmas holiday period. We could still come in well below that.

We back the concept of Road to Zero, we are just worried that this summer, it seems like a target that needs to be backed by some actions from Government to make it any kind of possibility.

By Nick Leggett, CEO, Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand