Australia: Tunnel vision and HVNL obligations

Last Updated: 4 October 2018
Article by Rebecca Niumeitolu

Most Read Contributor in Australia, September 2019

Trucks getting stuck in tunnels or colliding with the roof of tunnels is not an uncommon accident.

Some significant examples include:

  • On 7 February 2018 a truck with overhanging equipment smashed into the roof of the Domain Tunnel (2GB)
  • On 20 April 2017 a truck collided with the roof of Sydney's Airport Tunnel ripping off sprinkler heads and setting them off (7 News)
  • On 20 October 2015 a truck carrying an excavator hit the roof of New Acton Tunnel causing delays, tunnel closure for two days and $1.2 million in repair costs (M Raggatt, The Canberra Times, 12 February 2016).

Often we point to fatigue, speeding, intoxication and mechanical failure as key causes of accidents. But sometimes the cause of an accident can be as simple as trusting that your eyes will do all the work. The cautionary lesson resulting from trucks getting lodged, stuck and colliding with roofs of tunnels is that sometimes you just can't or shouldn't believe your eyes.

Dimension requirements

Dimension requirements under the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) relate to the width, height, length and overhang of a heavy vehicle and its equipment, load and components.

The primary obligation for Chain of Responsibility (CoR) parties under the HVNL (October amendments), is that a person who drives, or permits another person to drive, a heavy vehicle on a road must ensure the vehicle, and the vehicle's components and load, comply with the dimension requirements applying to the vehicle, unless the person has a reasonable excuse.

Non-compliance may result in:

  • a maximum penalty of $3,000 if a heavy vehicle has no passengers or goods
  • a maximum penalty of $10,000 for a severe risk breach where there are goods or passengers on board
  • a compensation order that could very well exceed $100,000, depending on the nature of damage caused by the accident to road infrastructure.

Causes and consequences of dimension requirements
The justifications for dimension requirements are relatively straightforward:

  • oversized vehicles pose a risk to driver and public safety
  • protruding or overhanging loads can cause significant damage to infrastructure and obstruct other drivers on the road
  • increased risks of accidents caused by breach of dimension requirements hampers efficient road transport of goods and causes delays to traffic.

Despite these risks being well-known to the industry you may be stumped to find a road user who has not encountered at some stage an incident where a truck has been stuck in a tunnel.

Interestingly, common reactions for drivers in such situations is to say that they checked the load and believed their vehicles were not over height or that they did not see the tunnel's height limit.

This view accords with the opinion of the driver in the case of Nolan v Kreidies Management Group Pty Ltd (Nolan v Kreidies), whose load collided with the roof of a tunnel on the M5 East Expressway. The driver was recorded by the Court as saying that he did not see flashing warning lights diverting over-height vehicles away from the tunnel and that he "believed that his vehicle was not over height".

Contrary to his belief, the scrap metal in his load struck a steel beam set at a height of 4.68 to 4.7 m above the roadway of the tunnel, well in excess of the vehicles 4.3 m height limit. Even if the vehicle was loaded within dimension limits, it is suspected that the load sprung up during transport, which is a known risk for scrap steel loads. Factors that can be said to have caused the driver's vehicle breach of dimension requirements were:

  • inadequate equipment provided to the driver to measure the dimensions of his vehicle
  • insufficient measures to secure the load on its vertical axis
  • insufficient instructions from the driver's manager to measure the dimension of the vehicle and appropriately restrain its load
  • the detour of the driver through the tunnel.

This tells that additional steps must be taken to properly comply with dimension requirements under the HVNL and to avoid the risk of being a truck that's stuck.

Steps to avoid breaching dimension requirements

A major pitfall for CoR parties is assuming, as management did in Nolan v Kreidies, that everyone knows their obligations under the HVNL because they have "been doing it every day". Accidents and risks arise due to inadvertence at all levels of organisations and in the transport supply chains.

Steps which can be taken, in addition to ground level visual checks of the vehicle are:

  • review your trip routes to ensure that over-height vehicles do not drive through tunnels and bridges with lower height limits
  • train and instruct your staff and contractors, including loaders, drivers and managers, on an ongoing basis about proper load restraint and provide them with sufficient equipment to secure heavy vehicle loads
  • provide a secure platform in which eye-level visual checks of loads may be undertaken to ensure that they do not protrude or over hang the heavy vehicle
  • check your loads are secured during your journey
  • implement processes for your business to review incidents of dimension breaches to avoid repeat contraventions and to evidence that you are actively ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of your transport activities.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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