Understanding the huge responsibilities and very specific challenges facing New Zealand’s truck drivers – and what big trucks are capable of – can help save lives on our roads. Deaths from crashes involving trucks account for 19% of the total road toll in New Zealand, according to roadsafetytruck.co.nz.

That’s way too high. There are also many non-fatal accidents and near misses involving trucks and light vehicles every day. The truth is that no one likes getting stuck behind a loaded truck, especially on a long journey with no passing lane in sight.

However, a more sympathetic understanding of how truck drivers have to respond to traffic, control the heavy weight and large size, manoeuvre the vehicle (especially at low speeds) and operate appropriately in a stressful and deadline-driven occupation can help reduce that 19%.

Trucks are a key link in our transport supply chain; it’s estimated that this mode of transport will be responsible for more than 90% of all domestic freight by 2042. It’s fair to say trucks are here to stay.

In an effort to reduce the number of accidents, trucking associations and related organisations are endeavouring to raise awareness of the rigours involved in keeping New Zealand moving – safely.

February 2021 saw the launch of National Truck Driver Appreciation Week to acknowledge the critical role truck driving professionals play in keeping the New Zealand economy moving. Another project, Share the Road, is funded by the New Zealand Transport Agency and works to encourage positive behaviour between drivers of heavy vehicles and cyclists.

Organisations and truck safety campaigners are keen to point out that this is far from a ‘them and us’ situation.

“One of the recurring issues we face is educating non-truck drivers on blind zones and what the truck driver can’t see,” says Driver Assessor and Trainer at Rotorua Forest Haulage Jonathan Stewart.

“Car drivers assume you can see absolutely everything when you’re sitting so high in such a big vehicle but that’s not the case. Truck drivers have much less vision than you realise. The cab has large blind zones in front, behind and along both sides, so cars and cyclists can be completely hidden. The mirrors only give the driver a narrow view directly behind the truck and vision is at its worst on the left side.”

Continuous vigilance from the driver is what keeps the near misses at just that and, while close calls are inevitable, it’s generally underestimated just how skilled New Zealand’s truckers are.

“The drivers are actually keeping motorists safe because they can see what’s coming – they really understand the mistakes that motorists make,” Jonathan says. He explains that one of the hazards to look out for involves wide turns, particularly when a truck makes a left-hand turn into a driveway. “It’s one of the most common incident-makers. Because of the truck’s length, they will sit out towards the middle of the road or even on the wrong side of the road if it’s a small street, and then turn in to the left.

“However, once the truck turns, even slightly, the mirrors are no longer showing down the sides. They’re looking out the back, the truck is pointing the ‘wrong’ way, and truck drivers simply cannot see any motorists there. Some motorists might then zip up the left-hand side, which is incredibly dangerous.”

Understanding the practical problems facing truck drivers is a significant hurdle to overcome. Throw into the mix variable road, weather and light conditions, traffic volume and other drivers, and the truck driver has plenty to contend with.

“The simple fact is that a 50-tonne truck cannot stop as quickly as a car,” says Chief Executive Officer at the New Zealand Trucking Association Dave Boyce. “It’s a common sight to see a motorist come up the inside of a truck or follow very close behind one.

“The driver will keep putting their nose out to see if they can make a safe pass, but if they actually pull a little bit further back so they can see the driver’s mirrors, that means the truck can see them and be aware that they’re there.

“We’re also working hard with the motorcycling community and the key message we want to get across is that we know you’re going to pass – because you’re quick and light and nimble and all those things – but just sit far enough back so you can see the mirrors and when you’re ready to go, flick those headlights, and the driver will notice that and know that you’re coming through,” Dave says.

Safety first

The New Zealand Trucking Association runs Share The Road and Healthy Truck Driver safety workshops; more than 37,000 participants have been through its programmes, including its flagship Safety MAN programme.

“We raise awareness through our Healthy Truck Driver programme around the importance of diet, sleep and exercise and how that links to mental health,” says Dave Boyce, Chief Executive Officer.

“It’s a huge issue at present, so we’re going into our own industry and getting the drivers to look after themselves and keep an eye out for their mates. As an association, we’re so concerned that there are a lot of people who don’t have an understanding about the basic fundamentals around trucks, whether they be motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists or pedestrians.”

Part of that education process involves visiting schools, communities and events, sharing knowledge and resources and getting students into the cab to show them what drivers can and cannot see to put truck awareness front of mind for all.

Learn & Live

• Whatever you’re driving or riding, never travel up the left side of a turning truck.

• Motorists shouldn’t follow trucks too closely; if you can’t see their mirrors, the driver can’t see you.

• Understand that trucks are heavy and need more time than a light vehicle to slow down. Don’t pull out in front of a truck that is travelling at speed.

• A little patience goes a long way. If it’s not safe to pass a truck on the open road, wait for a passing lane.

• Cyclists should maintain control of their bike, ride predictably and ride to be seen with high-vis clothing and bike lights.

Reported by Ben Whittacker-Cook for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue

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