Truck handbrake ban 18 months after police warning

Photo: RNZ
Photo: RNZ
Police pushed for an urgent ban on a type of handbrake after a runaway truck killed a man, but transport officials took 18 months to do it.

In an Official Information Act (OIA) response, police say the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) was not prepared to bring in a ban because it could "impact truck operators".

The family of the roadworker killed in Wellington's Ngauranga Gorge in March 2019, 25-year-old father-of-two Joji Bilo, accuse the agency of "carelessness and callousness".

Police and NZTA already knew by 2013 of at least nine crashes in the lower South Island involving the Sanwa Seiki type of handbrake, including one fatal where a maths teacher was crushed on a hill in Dunedin in 2010.

There was a non-injury accident involving the brakes in Auckland in mid-2020.

A year before that, after the gorge death, the police pushed the agency to have all 1000 trucks nationwide with Sanwa Seiki handbrakes 'ban-flagged' - under which a truck would not get a warrant (or Certificate of Fitness) until it replaced the handbrake.

"This would have meant all of these types of trucks would be off the road within a six-month cycle, therefore removing the problem," the police OIA said.

"NZTA were not prepared to 'ban-flag' the vehicles as it could impact truck operators."

Joji Bilo (right) and Luisa Bilo with their children Emi Mata and Kolinio. Photo: supplied
Joji Bilo (right) and Luisa Bilo with their children Emi Mata and Kolinio. Photo: supplied

Joji Bilo's mother-in-law Una Kama finds it hard to comprehend.

"To hear that even the police had recognised the dangers, and even came up with the solution to ensure the safety of our roadworkers, to ensure dads come back home after work, just blows our mind on why NZTA did not have the common sense to listen," she said.

"Their blatant disregard of life is almost criminal."

'Carelessness and callousness'

Una Kama, her daughter Luisa and the family's two young children, Emi Mata and Kolinio, now all live together in Wellington.

"Yesterday was a sad Mother's Day in our house, there were tears and sadness on this special day," Kama told RNZ on Monday.

"My grandchildren and I bought gifts for their mum, because we have been forced into this situation by carelessness and callousness."

The OIA response shows the police investigation of Bilo's death was escalated in May 2019 to the top road policing manager, then on to police headquarters.

Police then met with NZTA, seeking the ban-flag of trucks, senior constable and serious crash analyst Glen Marshall said in the OIA response.

Photo: RNZ
Photo: RNZ

'Prolonged outcome'

Instead, Waka Kotahi set up a team to look into it, and issued a safety alert, police said.

Kama questioned this.

"Are those people in that 'team to deal with the matter' willing to put their name up, to take on the responsibilities of being named when someone dies on the road?" she said in an email to RNZ.

"They are being careless openly, because they are hiding behind the NZTA name."

Multiple safety alerts had already gone out as far back as 2013.

The agency in 2019 talked with UD Trucks about recalling and replacing the brake levers, police said. UD Trucks took over from Nissan trucks in 2007.

"Police were not privy to this meeting or their discussions," Marshall said.

In late 2019, the agency outlined to police in an informal meeting, a "prolonged outcome" to replace the handbrakes at a rate of up to 10 a month.

This would have taken almost a decade to work through the 1000 trucks, mostly Nissans made between 1995 and 2003. The handbrake becomes increasingly prone to failure over time, due to its design, and where it is placed on the right side of the driver, according to the safety alerts.

As for the type of "new" lever the agency and UD Trucks wanted to use: "Police questioned their reason for this, as this lever had (in our opinion) design faults that leads to their failure."

"Police were told that was due to a manufacturer supply issue, and associated certification costs if an alternative park lever was retrofitted."

While this went on, there was another crash involving the same model of truck and brake lever, at an Auckland worksite in mid-2020.

This sparked another urgent approach to road policing management, police headquarters and on to NZTA.

The OIA's final statement is: "Wellington Police have not been kept up to date with any progress."

'Could have been prevented'

In March this year, Waka Kotahi told the transport industry it was imposing the September 2021 deadline on the handbrakes, because of "a number of incidents, with some causing deaths and serious injuries".

"The clear safety risk is why Waka Kotahi is taking the action outlined."

UD Trucks told RNZ in March that it had received no information at all about Joji Bilo's death in March 2019, and that NZTA did not consult with it about the March 2021 ban notice.

Fulton Hogan is being prosecuted by Worksafe under Health and Safety laws over the fatality.

The family felt "in limbo" because the case kept getting adjourned, Kama said.

Her daughter Luisa was still too upset to speak.

"Everyone is continuing with their lives, but my daughter and her two little children have been heaped with this burden, they have to deal with the loss of their dad [and] husband when it could have been prevented.

"It's upsetting on so many levels to find out the attitudes of those who are supposed to be working on our behalf. It's unacceptable," Kama said.

The agency is still struggling with how to deal with another type of truck handbrake - called a cardan shaft - that has been involved in three deaths since 2017, most recently with a rubbish truck in Wellington] in 2020.

In a survey of truck drivers late last year, 30 percent of drivers reported having problems with cardan shaft handbrakes, including runaway trucks. This only came to light after a copy of NZTA's test report was obtained by RNZ last month.

NZTA declined to be interviewed.

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