It was interesting to attend an NZTA stopping place workshop a couple of weeks ago. This was part of a consultation process involving representative road user groups to discuss how to improve the driver experience of the Twin Coast Discovery tourist route on State Highways throughout Northland.
In June last year, the Government announced funding, via the Provincial Growth Fund, to develop seven business cases for improving the route to make travel for visitors and locals easier and safer.
Two of these business cases were for better passing and overtaking opportunities and to develop a rest area implementation plan.
Significant participants in the workshop were the heavy transport industry who have recently had strict rest break requirements imposed. They were interested in how these stopping place requirements were to be incorporated into the plan.
Fatigue is a pretty significant issue within the industry, with drivers behind the wheel around 13 hours a day for five days before they are required to have a 24-hour break. If you are confronted on the road with a 40-tonne laden truck and trailer unit and the driver in a micro-sleep, you do have a potential problem.
This is an industry which is highly-skilled, relatively low paid, with a significant shortage of drivers, who operate to tight timeframes and profit margins, and is an integral and essential component of the local, regional and national economy.
It seems fair enough to me, that the roading infrastructure that the industry drives on and pays for, should be able to make provision for its drivers to be able to meet their legal requirements in order to create a safe working and driving environment for all users of the road.
The enforcement of that safe working environment is coming under increasing scrutiny.
New Zealand Transport Agency, as the industry licensing body, has recently been visibly cracking down on rogue trucking firms and Certificate of Fitness issuing bodies which have breached their legal obligations.
There are a wide range of opinions about how serious the issues are and what the industry participants are doing about them.
A recently reported PhD thesis by AUT researcher Dr Clare George, paints a pretty grim picture of some drivers' working lives.
In interviewing 45 industry participants, including 20 drivers, her thesis talks of, "speeding to keep up tight schedules, driving longer than the legal limit, falsifying log books with drivers often pressured to break the law to get the job done."
She asserts that some owner drivers in particular, have high business and health risk pressure.
On the other hand, industry bodies such as the Log Industry Safety Council, talk about taking the fatigue issue seriously, with devices in vehicles which monitor and alert drowsy drivers.
Many firms regularly test for driver overall health and especially, Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, the cause of micro-sleeps. Some assist their drivers with sleeping devices to ensure they sleep well outside work.
So it was at the Twin Coast Discovery Workshop that a total of 16 truck stop points were identified as being needed to meet the five-hour driving before a break requirement of the law in Northland. These presumed that Northport was the destination and the various forests were the starting point.
The ideal space and minimum facilities at each point were also discussed, and these will be the subject of a subsequent stage of the business case development, when the wish list and the reality come together.
The Twin Coast Discovery Route is a major tourist route and the provision of adequate stopping places for all users of the road is in all of our interests.
* John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.