Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drive one of those massive big rigs like those in Australia? Some of the trucks pull as many as four trailers behind them, looking more like a train than a tractor-trailer. The Australians refer to them as "B doubles" or articulated vehicles, which can weigh as much as 62.5 metric tons (137,800 pounds).
These vehicles are equipped with large capacity fuel tanks to handle the long stretches of road in the outback. Add a "kangaroo rack" to the front to avoid any damages from hitting one of those cute marsupials, and you've got a huge amount of machinery that can deliver a lot of freight over great distances.
Recently, I visited the land down under to participate in the Transport Women Australia conference held in Melbourne. Their goals are similar to those of Women In Trucking Association, but they represent all modes of transportation, such as bus, rail and maritime, not just women in the trucking industry.
While they were very interested in hearing about the environment for women in the United States, I was just as curious to learn about the challenges women face in a country with large, sparsely populated areas and an expanding mining industry.
Professional drivers suffer from an extremely negative image in Australia, worse than ours in the US. When I asked if they had any activities to elevate the impression four wheelers had of their drivers, they said they did not. However, they were very interested in hearing about the Trucker Buddy Program, Highway Angels, and America's Road Team.
Since nearly all (more than 99 percent) of the B Train drivers are men, they are often referred to as "Blokes." This isn't really a derogatory term; it's more like our version of "Dudes."
The trucking industry in Victoria, Australia, is governed by VicRoads, and I had the pleasure to meet with some of their representatives to discuss common issues. I also had the opportunity to meet with the folks from DECA, the driver's educational center of Australia, where they qualify drivers to operate trucks, motorcycles and taxicabs.
I had the opportunity to visit a new, state-of-the art truck stop near Melbourne. Oil companies, such as BP and Shell, operate the truck stops in Australia. This facility was touted as the most modern truck stop in the area, but the stark white walls, limited (and very slow) meal service and the basic shower and laundry equipment was not very inviting. There was no drivers’ lounge other than some hard plastic chairs near the small convenience store area. I didn't see any place where drivers were given preference over the four wheelers in the truck stop.
It takes years for a driver to be qualified to operate an articulated truck (tractor-trailer) and drivers are expected to start with smaller vehicles, such as the "rigids," or what we call straight trucks. For women, this is an entry-level job, but often follows a local, delivery position, or "tugs."
I met two female drivers who worked for Toll Trucking, the largest carrier in Australia, and a presence in Asia as well as the US. They have numerous divisions that transport everything from parcels to truckloads. One of their female drivers delivers parts for Ford motor company and stays within a small area between the Toll facility and the nearby Ford plant. She wanted to move into a larger truck (rigid) but was required to learn how to operate a forklift first so she could assist in loading and unloading the freight.
The Australians share another challenge we are experiencing in the US...an aging work force. Most of their drivers are over age 50 and they cannot attract younger generations to become drivers. While they are not under the same rules governing a driver's health as we have under FMCSA, an older work force means a decrease in fitness levels for the population.
Driving a truck in Australia is like stepping back in time. The industry is suffering from a driver shortage, an aging work force and a physically demanding career that is not well valued by the very people who it serves, the consumer. Oh, and they all drive on the wrong side of the road!
In the United States, one out of twenty drivers is a woman. Our goal, at Women In Trucking Association, is to increase that level considerably. While five percent is still dismal, the trucking industry in Australia has a long way to go to catch us.