Licenced to kill: cost cutting could be lethal

Having watched from the sidelines during “truck stop” initiatives aimed at training traffic officers to better identify defects on heavy vehicles, one question keeps nagging at me: how is it that this random selection of vehicles pulled off by the traffic police and sent over the inspection pits during these events is in such generally poor mechanical shape?

One has a perception about vehicles – when they look shiny and clean, one automatically assumes they are roadworthy and well maintained. For the most part, I have discovered, the relationship between outward appearance and actual condition is little better than random. The first time I attended a “truck stop” initiative I was shocked by the under-the-skin condition of some of the highly-polished heavy vehicles that were pulled in to be tested. If they had represented the inevitable results of shoestring owner-driver operations, I’d have been a little more understanding, but quite a few of the vehicles belonged to name brand companies, a couple of them listed on the JSE, with CEOs who are fêted by the business journalists in whose columns and on whose radio shows they appear. To be sure, some of these companies make tens of millions of rands profit each year.

The unroadworthy duds that pitched up at the testing centre included buses, licensed to carry scores of passengers. In one case, an entire axle on a bus had no functional brakes and in another, several tyres were illegal, and not just slightly, mark you.

So how is it that a company with a glossy public image, an articulate CEO and shiny, highly-conspicuous vehicles can be running a fleet of potential deathtraps with cracked chassis, frayed wiring, faulty brakes, leaking air lines and the vehicles’ undersides caked in muck from long-standing oil, grease and fuel leaks?

The answer is simple – when last did that articulate CEO step aside from his (or more rarely, her) fussing over the bottom line, don an overall and sidle unannounced into the sharp end of his business – the workshops where the vehicles that keep his money flowing are maintained? Indeed, since most CEOs are finance and commerce professionals rather than technicians, it’s unlikely they could stand under a truck in an inspection pit and know what they were looking at without expert guidance. But once that guidance was supplied, surely even the most hardened boardroom warrior would have serious second thoughts about releasing some of the under-maintained, over-used vehicles I have seen at “truck stop” events onto public roads where the potential casualties could include his nearest and dearest.

Maintenance is one of the inevitable casualties of a recession, and its paucity is evident in the atrocious safety record of heavy vehicles on our roads. If CEOs really want their transport operations to pay, they need to make their vehicles as unlikely to crash or break down as possible. This will maximise productivity (and profit) without the need to resort to destructive overloading or lethally long driving hours. Judging by the condition of many heavy vehicles, I’d say it’s time for a few CEOs to spend one day a month in their corporate grease pits, making sure that when costs are cut, the price isn’t paid in lives.


Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.

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