Analysis: A recipe for disaster

Low salaries, pressure from employers, disregard for safety, substandard roads and lack of law enforcement means danger on the roads.

By RON FRIEDMAN
February 24, 2010 02:49
4 minute read.
Car crash

Car crash. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The tragic death of five members of the same family in a traffic accident in the Arava on Monday and the unprecedented traffic jam near Hadera that brought half a country to a standstill on Sunday, both apparently caused by human error on the part of heavy-truck drivers, have led experts to point a finger at dangerous work practices in Israel’s trucking sector.

While it is still too early to know the precise causes of this week’s accidents and whether fatigue from overwork played a part, there is no question that the way the trucking industry works, with lax safety standards and long hours, is a recipe for future tragedies.

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A report published by Or Yarok, the road safety advocacy and educational organization, in December 2008, revealed that trucks were involved in a disproportionate number of fatal accidents. The report found that trucks were nearly five times more likely to be involved in lethal accidents, and heavy trucks – those weighing more than 34 tons – were 20 times more likely to be involved in lethal accidents relative to their numbers.

One reason for the high rate of truck involvement in traffic accidents is that they are constantly on the road. A truck that isn’t moving isn’t making money, and the pressure is on the trucking companies to keep the wheels turning at almost any cost. That pressure is mounted squarely on the shoulders of the drivers, who are urged by their employees to keep on the go, at times beyond the work hours permitted by law.

State regulations demand that truck drivers work a maximum of 12 hours within a 24-hour period. The regulations set firm limits on working hours and driving hours and required drivers to take time off for rest, both between shifts and during shifts. The problem is that drivers often exceed the limitations in order to earn additional income.

Truck drivers receive a basic salary of NIS 3,500 a month. To augment that income to levels that enable them to make a decent living, they regularly take on many hours of overtime, often up to 30 hours a week, when the maximum total work hours permitted by law is 68. Professor (ret.) Shalom Hakkert, a road safety expert from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, says that drivers are often forced by their employers to work as much as possible and are threatened with termination if they refuse to accept assignments.

Financial stresses, plus pressure from their employers, mean that many drivers are in effect forced to break the law by exceeding the limitations. Add that to the dismissive attitude in the industry regarding safety awareness, the lack of enforcement, substandard roads and low entry requirements for drivers, and you have a recipe for disaster.



Or Yarok’s report shows that while the fleet of active trucks in Israel is relatively new (seven years old on average), many of the modern safety features are optional and are not usually purchased by the companies. Things like Electronic Stability Programs, which stops the vehicle from leaning and sliding when it is in motion, cruise control, fatigue monitoring systems and lane departure warning systems have been proven to save lives, but no one in Israel is required to have them installed.

An all but complete lack of professional training and monitoring, and managerially emasculated safety officers, means that drivers are on the road for decades without refresher courses and safety briefings. So far the Road Transport Board has been able to drag a thousand drivers into the classroom for a workshop on safety awareness, but even it says this is a drop in the sea.

The police have some enforcement power at their disposal, at least when it comes to monitoring hours spent on the road. Every truck has to have a device called a tachograph installed in it. A tachograph is a combination of a clock and a speedometer. It records the vehicle’s speed and whether it is moving or stationary. Police officers can ask to see a driver’s tachograph at a random inspection, or if he was caught in a traffic violation. By inspecting it they can see how long the truck has been in motion and when the last break was taken.

The problem is that analog tachographs can be tampered with, and tamper-proof digital tachographs are not yet required by law.

While Israel’s road network has improved greatly in the past decade, many roads are still considered inferior and unsafe for fast-moving and heavy vehicles. Some are too narrow or poorly maintained, and many lack adequate safety features. Monday’s tragedy occurred on Route 25, a road that is constantly featured on the list of “red roads” – those with the highest rates of casualties from accidents.

Solutions to the situation require a multi-pronged effort. Firm legislation is required regarding safety measures in trucks and mandatory training for drivers. The Transportation Ministry must continue to upgrade the road system and to introduce modern safety equipment, such as railings, on more of the roads. The police have to better enforce the law when dealing with truck drivers, and judges have to make sure repeat offenders are kept off the road.

Trucking companies must take responsibility for their drivers’ behavior, if need be, by law, and design a new and less exploitative wage structure that will allow drivers to reject risky premiums. The drivers themselves must be aware of their responsibility as the biggest and most lethal users of the roads, respect the fact that roads are public places and keep safety constantly in mind.

Hakkert said that the IDF greatly reduced its accident rate in the last decade by learning the lessons of the past and introducing a safety awareness culture. Such a culture is much needed in the trucking industry, he said.

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