Just days after a blown truck tyre led to a three deaths in Melbourne’s Burnley Tunnel, the trucking industry is defending its right to use roads in the same way as other motorists.

Speaking to the Sunday Age, chief executive of the Australian Trucking Association Stuart St Clair said:

Provided trucks are travelling in a responsible and legal manner, it doesn’t matter what lane they are travelling in … Various studies have shown that 80 per cent of accidents involving articulated vehicles are not the fault of the articulated vehicle.

CityLink has cautiously supported that view, saying no changes would be made to speed limits or truck access until investigations have been completed. “The tunnel is entitled to be open and operating at 80km/h and so we would expect that may well be the prevailing situation,” CityLink spokesperson Jean Ker Walsh said.

But transport experts are not so supportive. Dr Paul Mees, lecturer in transport at Melbourne University, says that building the tunnel without an emergency lane might not “have been the smartest thing around,” but says the broader issue here is the power of the trucking industry.

“Why is so much of this heavy containerized freight, which is ideally suited for rail carriage, being moved on our roads? The answer is that we’ve got a very powerful road lobby,” Mees told Crikey.

“The main players are the PPP industry, the trucking industry, the RACV and the state and federal road building bureaucracies, which have all been running the line for 30 years that the most important thing Australia can do for its prosperity is let trucks drive faster. But it’s not true. If traffic congestion reduced your prosperity, Adelaide should be an economic paradise.”

Mees claims that the road lobby has presented the problem as one of too few  roads rather than one of speed limits. In the past the RACV has used incidents like this to ask for more spending on roads rather than change the behaviour of truck drivers.

Yet driver behaviour is expected to be a key factor in Friday’s tragedy. Dr Max Cameron, Principal Research Fellow at Monash University’s Accident Research Centre, adds that better regulation of the trucking industry will have a meaningful and immediate impact on road safety.

“I think the tunnel situation only exacerbates the danger inherent in trucks sharing our roads with cars,” he told Crikey. “If we could afford it, we would not have trucks on the same roadspace as smaller vehicles. Or they would be using it in more appropriate ways.”

Cameron says Australian authorities need to think more carefully about how we put cars and trucks together in risky situations like the Burnley Tunnel. It was precisely that riskiness that saw Cameron abandon the tunnel on his daily route to work.

“I used to use that tunnel to travel to work but I’ve ceased doing that. It was the environment that lead me to think it was unsafe. It felt close to the limit in terms of one minor error by a car or truck driver could lead to disaster and that’s essentially what we saw last Friday.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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