Two fatal incidents in South Australia, which are all too easy to picture happening elsewhere in the country, are worth considering.
One of the inquests related to the death of 42-year-old John Posnakidis in 2010. Mr Posnakidis was a truck driver who was sitting at a bus stop waiting for assistance after his truck had broken down when another out-of- control truck struck and killed him.
The Deputy State Coroner, Anthony Schapel, found that:
"[The driver's] inability to select an appropriate gear for the descent on the South-Eastern Freeway was at least in part due to inexperience and a lack of proper familiarity with both the gearbox in question and the features of the South-Eastern Freeway. I have also found that [the driver] failed to take the appropriate number of hours rest within the 24 hour period prior to the accident."
Additionally, the Coroner found that the five of the trailer brakes had "excessive push rod stroke lengths consistent with maladjustment."
The other inquest related to the death of 41-year-old James Venning, also a truck driver, whose semi-trailer crashed into a wall at an intersection at the beginning of the South-Eastern Freeway in 2014. Mr Venning died at the scene.
The Coroner found that at the time of the collision, the truck was travelling over 145km/h (the speed limit was 60km/h). The truck's brake lights were clearly illuminated in the footage and Mr Venning did not use either of the two safety ramps available. It was Mr Venning's first time driving a heavy vehicle on the South-Eastern Freeway.
The Coroner also found that, "...the inconsistency in the effectiveness of the six individual brakes of the trailer is a reflection of the variation of brake lining thickness in respect of the individual brakes and is a product of poor adjustment, lack of proper maintenance and a lack of adequate preparation having regard to the task that the trailer had to perform on the occasion in question."
The coroner made 21 recommendations as a result of the two incidents. The recommendations included:
- that all heavy vehicles be made subject to a frequent inspection regime;
- roadworthiness and vehicle maintenance be added to the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) chain of responsibility (CoR) regime; and
- stronger penalties be introduced for breaches of Australian Road Rule 108 (relating to when truck drivers must remain in low gear)
A number of the Coroner's proposed steps have already been introduced by the South Australian Government to improve safety on the freeway including speed limit reduction for heavy vehicles with a gross vehicle mass of 4.5 tonnes or over, new signage and road markings emphasising that trucks and buses must drive on a low gear, and extending the portion of the down track of the South- Eastern Freeway to which the low gear requirement applies.
What does this mean for you?
These inquiries follow other recent high-profile incidents involving the transport industry, including Cootes Transport being charged with over 300 offences in New South Wales (including 86 charges for operating unsafe vehicles), last October. As a result of these recent incidents and the two inquiries, it is likely that truck maintenance and roadworthiness will become part of the CoR legislative regime in South Australia and in other Australian states in the near future.
Employers and responsible CoR parties should keep an eye out for any legislative changes in this area and should undertake a review of their internal policies and practices to ensure that they are suitable and adequately documented.
The inquiries also raise the possibility that initiatives will be implemented allowing compulsory third-party bodily injury insurers to recover compensation paid in relation to death or bodily injury resulting from negligent driving on the section of the South-Eastern Freeway from a wide range of persons.
This would extend beyond the driver and registered owner of the heavy vehicle to the operator of the business to which the vehicle relates and any other person in the CoR who influenced the vehicle's use. Such persons would be jointly and severally liable in relation to that recovery. This introduces the possibility of the development of an uninsurable exposure for specific breaches that result in death or personal injury to third parties.
While the focus of the inquiries was mainly on the drivers, it is important to remember that everyone in the CoR must comply with CoR laws.
The South Australian's Coroner's recommendations for heavy vehicles touch on many parts of the road transport industry supply chain – and could gain traction across the country. We have summarised the key findings for you in one table on our website, so you can stay well-informed and well-prepared if they are implemented.
This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.