John Ernst is the Executive Officer of the South Gippsland Safe Freight Network and Project Manager for Safe Freight Networks Australia.
John’s background is in community development work and he has had a keen interest in road safety since the beginning of his professional career in rural Victoria in 1987.
John’s extensive experience in developing community-based programs to address specific issues has been fundamental in the establishment of the Safe Freight Network organisation.
It began when John was working for the South Gippsland Shire. He had met Allan Pincott, who had organised a road safety meeting.
Allan was then an inspector with VicRoads and made a presentation in relation to the high number of truck rollovers in the Shire.
“We got 240 drivers together in a room and had a bit of a chat,” says John. “Allan did his roll over presentation and drivers’ jaws started dropping. We presented the statistics for South Gippsland which showed at the time there was a rollover every fortnight in just this tiny little shire of 19,000 people, which was just ridiculous.”
Subsequently John was able to utilise Council resources to bring major stake holders to the table including major fleets, the police and VicRoads.
Within 12 months truck rollover crashes had been reduced by 80 per cent and that result was sustained for the next ten years.
“A lot of the companies began sharing their data and information and I didn’t realise this wasn’t happening anyway. Log truck drivers and milk tanker drivers actually sitting at the same table together sharing information about how they make their operations safer had never happened before,” he recalls. “Everyone might know each other but they don’t actually sit down and talk about it.”
John immediately recognised that the problem was bigger than South Gippsland — half of the trucks are not even from the area.
The establishment of Safe Freight Networks eventuated with its core aim to facilitate a local response for safety in the broader freight task by holding round table meetings between stakeholders in the road freight industry who were interested in making a safer road environment for all professional road users.
“This is best achieved through a greater understanding of what is happening at a local level,” says John.
“We believe that the experts in local road safety are those who are involved as professional organisations and the drivers who engage in the freight task on a daily basis.”
The program was immediately successful and in 2015 won the National Award for Local Government Excellence in Road Safety. The program also won the inaugural Transport Accident Commission ‘Toward Zero’ award in the same year.
John then sought ways to quantify the effect the road environment may have on road accidents and found there was plenty of information.
But the message just wasn’t getting through to where it was needed.
“In 2019 Rural Roads Victoria came to us and said they had some money which needed to be spent on the western roads or in the Victorian section of the Green Triangle area and asked us what were our priorities,” he says. “We couldn’t answer because we didn’t know ourselves. Everyone had a vague idea but nobody could actually say for sure. Most companies keep records of vehicle damage as the result of roads and we sought a way to unlock the information and use it productively with road owners to show certain sections of some roads need attention. We’d been struggling with this for eight or nine years and then I came across this company called CrowdSpot in Melbourne who work with the cycling people.”
CrowdSpot carries out research work for vulnerable road users including pedestrians and cyclists through engagement with local government bodies such as shire councils.
“When shires are thinking about putting in new cycling infrastructure they use them to get it right,” John explains. “Cycling’s Amy Gillett Foundation also uses them every five years to audit of cycling infrastructure in various major cities around the country.”
In conjunction with CrowdSpot’s expertise in producing interactive map-based reporting tools John set about developing a similar system for truck drivers to use.
Two pilot areas in the Green Triangle and Gippsland were set up in early 2021.
“The idea is the truck drivers can log on with an app on Apple or Android systems or via the website, and a map comes up of all the roads,” he explains. “It’s even got every by-road marked and as they drill down they can actually go to the location that is causing them a problem. They just drop the flag on there and it also allows them to put a comment up on the side.”
The combined information produces ‘heat maps’ which indicate areas where particular problems occur and the report generated provides a list of the top ten areas which need attention.
“Straight away, Rural Roads Victoria in western area of the state picked up on it and said some of the rectification works can be done as part of cyclic maintenance,” says John. “It was just a matter that they needed to be made aware of, and within days they were clearing the overhead branches and the vegetation from the roadsides.”
The program is being initially funded by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) and has also been instrumental in changing the allocation of funds by addressing priorities including the redesigning of intersections.
“The idea is to get the reports back to the NHVR and have a look at this as a methodology which could be rolled out across the country,” says John. “Until now, there hasn’t been a way for the ordinary drivers to feed into road condition reports and what’s come out of the Safe Freight Network meetings in both Gippsland and the Green Triangle is the road managers wanted a way to actually have their drivers have direct input.”
For the authorities and road managers the new program represents value for money and has already proved to be a good public relations exercise with the transport industry taking a degree of ownership. Some results are already being realised. An unexpected benefit has been Safe Freight Network’s involvement in discussions about repurposing old road infrastructure as the basis for new rest areas when a bypass is constructed.
“In Gippsland they have already done that in three locations and it cost very little compared with building brand new stuff,” John says. “The drivers have invested time and are already seeing outcomes.”
It’s a win for the road owners, too, as they can say they are actually responding to what the industry wants.
“Some of what they can do will be under cyclic maintenance and is not going to cost us anything extra, and some projects will need engineering solutions so we’ll need to do a bit more investigation and do a safe systems assessment,” John says.
“Due to having the list of priorities they can also slide in whenever they have additional funding.”