A Christchurch judge has sent an $86,000 message to the transport industry that it must get to grips with the issue of driver workload and fatigue.
Otorohanga-based family business Freight Lines Ltd must pay the penalty for failing to keep one of its drivers within the legal work time limits.
The driver, John Breach, fell asleep at the wheel near Ashley on a long return trip from the North Island and crashed the truck and double trailer unit off the road and into a tree.
It took rescue services three hours to cut him out of the wreckage and months of recovery in hospital and rehabilitation followed. “He has paid the highest price of anybody,” Christchurch District Court Judge Tom Gilbert said as he imposed the penalty.
He said Freight Lines Ltd had failed to allocate tasks in a way that reduced driver fatigue, or to train its dispatchers to deal with the issue.
“It is indisputable, the danger that the fatigue of drivers at the wheel of large truck and trailer units poses to the drivers and to other road users,” said the judge.
Freight Lines must pay $30,000 as emotional harm reparations to the driver, as well as a fine of $51,000, and $5000 towards the prosecution’s costs.
The dispatcher who was dealing with the driver, Aaron Pourewa, was fined $4000. The judge acknowledged that he was also under significant pressure and had been working 15 hour days, but he should have taken steps to address the driver’s workload and fatigue.
“He should have known that the tasks were not achievable within the time limts,” said the judge.
The 67-year-old driver was found to have been falsifying records himself, to keep up with his workload. He had worked 77 hours in the week leading up to the November 2014 crash. He had only had a 7.5hr break instead of the required 10 hours, and had breached the requirements for half-hour breaks. A suggestion that he take a motel for a break on that trip was abandoned when it was realised he would not reach the Cook Strait ferry in time.
Judge Gilbert said the dispatcher should have calculated whether the tasks allocated within the time limits were achievable within the work time limits. He had accepted that he could have done more to stop the driver continuing to drive.
Judge Gilbert said the driver said he was “following instructions in terms of handling the work assigned to him”.
Prosecutor Heather McKenzie called for the penalty to reflect a specific deterrence for Freight Lines and a general deterrence for the transport industry. She described it as an industry-wide problem.
The driver, John Breach, who had travelled from Matamata for the sentencing, said the crash had had a devastating effect on himself and his partner and their lives. He had now passed the required tests but had not been able to get more transport work and Freight Lines had terminated his work.
“I have been very hurt by the way Freight Lines has treated me,” he told the court.
His long term partner, Sylvia Griffin, said Mr Breach had been “a smashed up mess” when she saw him in hospital in Christchurch after the crash. She now felt like she had lost her partner and was scared for their future.
Counsel for Freight Lines, Shafraz Khan, said the company had invested $180,000 in an electronic monitoring system that ensured drivers did not exceed driving limits, as well as paying $16,000 a month for electronic odometers that provided the tracking data. It had also redone its health and safety policies and increased training to drivers and dispatchers.
Both the company and the dispatcher had admitted charges under the Health and Safety in Employment laws of failing to ensure the safety of the driver.
The judge reduced the company’s fine for its guilty plea, the steps it had taken, and its favourable record under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. However, he noted it had 16 transport convictions from 1996 to 2011 including breaches of work time limits, and allowing vehicles to be used with log book omissions.
Judge Gilbert thanked the driver and his partner for reading their victim impact statements in court.
He also thanked the company officials for attending the hearing. “There are some companies which choose not to front up to a forum like this. I appreciate that you have.”