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Bigger trucks are better for productivity and the environment – Dom Kalasih

Heavier and longer trucks are not ruining our roads – despite claims to the contrary. The truth may surprise some people – heavier and longer trucks are cleaner and greener.

I know, it sounds counterintuitive and as the head of New Zealand’s leading association whose job is to support the trucking industry, you might expect me to come to their defence, but please hear me out and allow me to explain.

First, here’s some background. The incoming transport minister, Simeon Brown, just received BIMs (Briefings to the Minister) from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and the Ministry of Transport saying all our roads need a lot of work, and they can’t afford to pay for it.

Transporting New Zealand agrees – and so, I am sure, will most road users. Our members know first-hand how bad the roads are, and how overloaded the road network is.

This presents a huge challenge to the Coalition Government, but also to the road freight industry that my organisation represents.

Our drivers and companies are some of the most affected by congestion, poor road condition, severe and disruptive weather events, and poor safety outcomes. I also know that our members, who are mainly small-to-medium-sized family businesses, want to play their part in improving the situation.

While there is no silver bullet to fixing all the transport challenges, industry can play a key role. A vital way we can help is getting bigger, more productive trucks on the road, as soon as possible.

At first glance, like I said, this may seem counterintuitive as a way of looking after the roads.

Waka Kotahi NZTA’s briefing identified heavier and longer trucks (over 44 tonnes) as one of the factors putting strain on the roading system. There is also a public perception that heavier trucks are more dangerous for other road users, emit more carbon dioxide, and do more damage to the roads than lighter trucks.

The reality, however, is different. Heavier, higher productivity truck and trailer units are a practical and efficient way to get our transport system working better.

While they may be a convenient political target, heavy trucks pay more than their fair share towards the upkeep and maintenance of roads. Heavy vehicles currently pay around 65 per cent of all road user charges. Trucks also pay a much higher proportion of their cost to the network than rail freight and light passenger vehicles do, according to a 2023 Ministry of Transport study.

Due to road user charges being calculated on a fairly crude axle-weight basis, truck and trailer combinations over 44 tonnes are actually over-charged compared with lighter vehicles. Instead of blaming heavy trucks for the state of the road network, Waka Kotahi NZTA needs to focus on building enough roading capacity to handle our growing freight requirements.

Moving more freight on larger trucks can also reduce congestion and decarbonisation. Traffic congestion costs Auckland alone $1 billion a year, so it’s vital to move more goods with fewer trips. The potential CO₂ reductions are also major. The International Road Transport Union estimates heavier trucks can reduce carbon emissions on a tonne/kilometre basis by up to 35 per cent compared with standard trucks. Electric trucks will also be significantly heavier than their diesel equivalents, with batteries adding several tonnes to their total weight.

Finally, heavier vehicles are a win for road safety. By increasing truck capacity, the number of journeys drops, and the corresponding accident risk goes down. Heavy trucks are also safer than ever, with improved sensors, collision warning, and emergency braking systems. Monitoring of truck driver fatigue and driving habits is also improving. (However, statistics show there is no contribution by the truck driver in 82 per cent of death and serious injury crashes involving heavy vehicles. Increasing heavy vehicle uptake coincides with a decline in truck-related death and serious heavy vehicle accidents since 2017.)

Heavy truck use is already increasing, but there are several steps the Coalition Government could take to improve their use even more.

For instance, applying for and operating under a heavy vehicle permit is currently far too complicated for transport operators, and the 7000 permits processed in 2023 don’t appear to add value. Minister Brown should seek an urgent review.

Where practical, permit requirements should be dropped entirely, with 50 MAX trucks with their special axle configurations granted general access across the roading network. New Zealand should also follow Victoria’s example and allow heavy electric trucks to operate with higher weights on their front axle, to accommodate their batteries, if the roads are up to it.

Most importantly, the upcoming Government Policy Statement on land transport must make increasing freight efficiency a leading priority. Without this our economic, environmental and safety outcomes will continue to stall.

 

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