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Government urged to expedite compulsory high-tech braking system adoption

ABC News, 24 February 2014

Trucking industry leaders are calling for state and Federal Governments to expedite the compulsory adoption of a high-tech braking system that prevents heavy vehicle rollovers.

Electronic stability control (ESC) alerts drivers to a loss of stability or loss of directional control, and helps to correct those problems.

It is a technology that is mandatory on all new trucks and trailers in Europe, and is expected to soon be mandatory in the United States.

A key recommendation from a New South Wales south coast tragedy four years ago – in which a Cootes fuel tanker slammed into several cars and exploded – was the mandatory installation of ESC in all dangerous goods trucks. That has not yet happened, despite many in the industry supporting it.

A joint media release issued by the chairmen of the National Bulk Tanker Association (NBTA) and the Australian Road Transport Suppliers Association (ARTSA) said that electronic stability control could save lives.

"The single most significant safety solution for heavy vehicles in the last 20 years has been left on the shelf long enough. The public demands better," the statement said.

The NBTA's chairman, Justin Keast, heads McColl's tanker division, which operates one of the largest tanker fleets in the country.

"The good operators in our industry have embraced ESC. It is no longer a debate and our association has supported its adoption for a number of years," Mr Keast said.

"However, there are a considerable number of operators who are happy to avoid it simply because it adds cost to their business. It is time to level the playing field and ensure that all new trucks and trailers are fitted with ESC."

ARTSA chairman Dr Peter Hart said even experienced drivers occasionally misjudge the road conditions and the system would help prevent accidents.

"It is not a case of speeding; it is a case of misjudgement. Variable loading and slosh in tankers is another problem factor. The intelligent control system can foresee a developing problem and intervene," he said.

Federal minister to 'examine the case'

There has been frustration within the trucking industry that the rules have been slow to change, meaning it is up to operators to voluntarily buy trucks with stability control.

NSW has had two deadly fuel tanker crashes in recent years, both involving Cootes tankers.

Four people were killed in the south coast accident, south of Ulladulla, in December 2009; the Bridge sisters Jordan, 13, and Makeely, 11, their father David Bridge, and the Cootes tanker driver, David Carolan.

Debbie Bridge, the girls' mother, received burns to 80 per cent of her body and lived another two years.

She spoke powerfully at the 2011 inquest, and later to Cootes truck drivers in Melbourne, about the need for lessons to be learnt, so that no-one else should suffer the way her family had.

Deputy State Coroner Carmel Forbes had heard evidence that electronic stability control was a proven technology, and recommended it be fitted on all heavy vehicles – new and old – carrying dangerous goods.

That has not yet happened, although NSW will require all new dangerous goods trucks to have ESC from July 1 this year.

NSW has been negotiating with a panel of state and territory dangerous goods authorities. The panel has not agreed to recommend the retrofitting of older trailers, despite the average age of tanker trailers being 20 to 30 years.

The second tragedy was last September, in Sydney's Mona Vale. Two people died, and several were injured. That accident is currently under investigation.

It is understood that after the Mona Vale crash, the NSW Minister for Transport, Duncan Gay, urged his interstate and Federal colleagues, at a meeting last year, to adopt compulsory stability control.

While the transport ministers agreed to make anti-lock brakes mandatory this year, they determined only to review electronic stability control.

A spokesman for Mr Gay told ABC News that the minister would continue to try to expedite the process, although he did not specify how.

Jamie Briggs is the Federal Government minister responsible for heavy vehicles, as the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development.

A spokesman said the next stage of the National Heavy Vehicle Braking Strategy will "examine the case for mandating Electronic Stability Control (ESC) for heavy vehicles, while considering any technical limitations or challenges".

Premiers urged to act on their own

That frustrates Dr Hart, the lead consultant in the formation of that strategy.

He is a heavy vehicle engineer, as well as chairman of the ARTSA and said his recommended strategy and timeline is about three years behind.

A new timeline must be set, Dr Hart and Mr Keast say.

"ESC with roll-stability response should be mandated on new vehicles within 18 months. It's time that the Governments of Australia acted to make this a reality," their joint statement said.

Dr Hart wrote to Minister Gay last week, urging him to act. Premiers, he said, can make change themselves.

"When John Brumby was Premier of Victoria, he forced the motor car industry to adopt ESC for cars," he said.

"He simply said, if a car were sold in Victoria, it would not be registered unless it had ESC and side curtain airbags. It took a very short space of time before all States and the Federal government followed.

"We need one premier to stand up and say the same for heavy vehicles, and not just tankers."

The issue was highlighted in a recent Background Briefing program on Radio National.

In it, Jack and Jenny Murray, who lost their granddaughters and son in law in the south coast tragedy, and later their daughter, spoke publicly for the first time, about their loss, and their frustration that the coroner's recommendations had not yet been implemented.

Mr Murray could not see how the cost of retrofitting older fuel tanker trailers should be a barrier.

"Retrofit the old vehicles or don't go on the road," he said.

"They're booking them for minor details and that sort of thing, why worry about minor details with the trucks not filling in their log book and such like if you don't turn around and get to the crux of the matter."