Australia: Assessing fitness to drive – some helpful tips

Last Updated: 8 February 2018
Article by Nathan Cecil
Most Read Contributor in Australia, March 2019

The demands on heavy-vehicle drivers can often be significant when they must interact with both the vehicle and the external environment at the same time. In this article, we examine how you can assess a driver's fitness to drive and provide some helpful tips regarding the different approaches.

An element of fatigue compliance under the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) is making sure that a driver is fit to drive, in the sense of not being adversely affected by fatigue. This obligation may also arise under general Work Health and Safety (WHS) law, as well as an overriding general obligation to ensure the safety of all participants in the road transport industry.

Driver fatigue is a safety hazard. Most people are well aware of the causes of fatigue but sometimes less conscious of the implications. Under the HVNL and WHS laws, all parties in the chain need to take a pro-active approach to managing their responsibilities, including assessing a driver's fitness to drive.

Driver fitness for duty covers:

  • licencing
  • fatigue compliance
  • being drug free and not exceeding any applicable alcohol limits
  • medical fitness.

Factors affecting driving

The National Transport Commission (NTC) recently assisted in the publication of a document "Assessing fitness to drive for commercial and private vehicle drivers". Although the publication is tailored towards health professionals and details medical standards for driver licensing purposes, it is useful for the heavy vehicle industry in understanding the issue.

It identifies a number of complex driver, vehicle, task, organisational and external road environment factors which can affect drivers. These include the driver's experience, training and attitude; the driver's physical and mental health (including fatigue and the effect of prescription and non-prescription drugs); the natural environment; vehicle and equipment characteristics; work-related multitasking and vehicle issues including size, stability and load distribution. In addition, there a number of further commercial considerations for heavy vehicle drivers under the HVNL, which include (but are not limited to):

  • business requirements, for example, rosters (shifts), driver training and contractual demands
  • legal requirements, for example, work diaries and licensing procedures
  • vehicle issues including size, stability and load distribution
  • passenger requirements/issues
  • endurance/fatigue and vigilance demands associated with long periods spent on the road.

One of the most common questions we hear is "how can we test a driver's fitness to drive?"

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple, because driver fitness can be construed very broadly. Depending on the individual situation, your assessments should generally involve evaluating some or all of the following:

  1. the need for specialised equipment or vehicle modifications
  2. the driver's ability to control the motor vehicle
  3. the driver's functional status including cognitive function, physical strength and skills, reaction time, insight level and ability to self-monitor their driving
  4. the driver's lifestyle and the nature, frequency and requirement for driving
  5. the driver's understanding and application of road laws.

One way to evaluate the above (in particular (a) and (d)) is to have your driver fill in a self-assessment form such as a driver health questionnaire. This will help identify conditions that might affect a person's capacity to drive safely and is a starting point regarding the person's fitness to drive a commercial vehicle until a full clinical examination is performed.

What can you ask your driver?

Short of having a fitness for duty assessment sheet (which we will cover off in the next section), some simple key questions that you can ask your driver before undertaking any work-related tasks include:

  • How are you feeling?
  • Did you have sufficient sleep?
  • When was your last working shift?
  • When is your next working shift?
  • Have you consumed any alcohol in the last 24 hours?

These questions appear obvious but they are often overlooked and can prevent unnecessary accidents/incidents from occurring. As an operator, loading manager, scheduler and consignor, maintaining a good working relationship with your drivers is essential and will help you in complying with your obligations under the HVNL.

What observations should you be making?

Certain drivers will not feel comfortable speaking the truth if they are aware of the ramifications. Therefore, it is also important that you conduct thorough visual observations of drivers from a fatigue perspective. Short of having a health professional on site to conduct a medical exam of the driver's fitness for duty, things to look out for include:

  • Assess the driver's posture while they are standing. If they are slouched and appear without energy, it may suggest that they are not alert and are unfit to drive
  • Look closely at the driver's eyes. Frequent blinking and/or droopy eyelids can suggest a lack of sleep
  • Smell the breath of the driver for any signs of alcohol or drug consumption.

If you have an unfit driver that is involved in an accident, the implications for the driver and the company can be significant, involving not just civil but criminal liability. Therefore, it is essential that companies have adequate systems and procedures in place to monitor, detect and test a driver's fitness to drive.

Finally, drivers themselves should be concerned to ensure that they are fit to drive. Apart from exposing themselves and others to risk of injury, a driver who drives knowing that they are unfit may also expose themselves to penalty or civil liability in the event that an accident occurs.

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.

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Nathan Cecil
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