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Waka Kotahi dragged out efforts to petition change in truck handbrakes, documents reveal

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Eighteen months after a Wellington roadworker was ploughed down from behind by a runaway truck in Ngauranga Gorge, the highway contractor was still petitioning the regulator to do more.

Joji Bilo, 25, was killed in early March 2019.

The handbrake, a type known by Waka Kotahi as risky for a decade, had been dislodged probably merely by the vibration from the driver shutting the door of the cab, investigators found.

Within two months of Joji’s death the agency was talking about encouraging a recall to remove the threat posed by a thousand trucks from the road.

Yet by August the following year, 2020, the roadworker’s employer Fulton Hogan was warning NZTA that the danger remained.

“The [safety] recommendations are not effective” because no one was policing them, the big roading company told NZTA’s chief executive Nicole Rosie.

“Preferably, initiate a mandatory recall,” it urged.

It took the agency another seven months to announce a ban, and another six months for that to kick in.

About 170 trucks still have not been fixed a year on and should be off the road, the agency told RNZ yesterday.

Fulton Hogan is awaiting a sentencing decision by the courts after pleading guilty to a health and safety charge, at a hearing where a half dozen top executives apologised to the Bilo family.

It was not their truck that failed, but a subcontractor’s.

Fulton fixed all its own trucks back in 2012, after a first death, not related to Fulton, in Dunedin in 2010 – but it failed to make sure all its subbies followed suit.

This, it said in an email just this August to NZTA, led to it being in court.

“WorkSafe believe steps should have been taken to communicate this change … and make this requirement of our subbies at that time also,” it said three months ago.

But the company had already told the Transport Agency, back in 2020, that it lacked the influence.

“Our advice to a number of other parties in our sector has led to them taking a similar voluntary course of action” to swap-out their handbrakes, Fulton chief executive Cos Bruyn told Waka Kotahi’s Rosie in a letter on 31 August, a few weeks after meeting her.

“Unfortunately, Fulton Hogan’s ‘communication influence’ is relatively limited … and the issue appears far broader,” he said.

Waka Kotahi’s principal engineer had acknowledged this two months after Joji Bilo died.

“It’s a wide enough issue that I want to see us put out better coverage about safety maintenance of park brakes more generally,” the engineer told Fulton Hogan in May 2019.

That same month, the agency said it was meeting with the distributor UD Trucks “to work through encouraging a recall”.

Bruyn told Rosie in 2020 Fulton Hogan “continues to have significant concerns”.

Unenforced safety alerts had not worked, he said, noting they had just heard from Fletcher Building about “a recent rollaway” – one that did not lead to injury.

“I also note eight other situations over the last seventeen months in Fulton Hogan, where we have turned away at-risk trucks from our worksites,” Bruyn said in his letter.

Rosie told him the handbrake problem was going before the NZTA board.

The agency told RNZ yesterday all evidence on the handbrakes was looked at in 2020, and in November that year its board backed forcing the industry in 2021 to get the brakes fixed.

There had been nine safety alerts since the 2010 death, from government and industry.

The agency in May 2019 admitted “we need to do something different to what has happened in the past”.

By November 2020, the agency’s senior manager of critical risk was still talking about “a greater intervention in this space”.

The alerts’ focus was on some models of Nissan trucks built from 1995-2003, though the emails say that a Hino model was modified by a concrete company after a “serious accident” when its Sanwa Seiki handbrake failed.

Hino told RNZ its trucks were not affected by the handbrake ban last year.

Investigations found the mere vibrations from the cab door of the truck being closed was probably enough to dislodge the handbrake in March 2019, sending the vehicle hurtling down one of the steepest sections of State Highway One.

The brake failed on every occasion police tested it yet the truck had got its six-monthly COF (like a WOF) just days before the fatality.

Eventually, in March 2021, Waka Kotahi wrote to 1050 truck owners, setting a September 2021 deadline for the mandatory replacement of their handbrakes.

Fulton Hogan’s national safety manager told the agency this was “terrific”.

“Thanks for the time, energy and leadership that you’ve personally put into ensuring the removal and replacement of the … brake system across New Zealand’s trucking fleet

“New Zealand’s roads and users will certainly be safer as a result.”

The company is awaiting sentencing, after pleading guilty to a health and safety charge of failing to to coordinate, communicate and cooperate with other parties in the run-up to his death.

Charges against three others were dropped.

Fulton Hogan declined to comment while it awaits the court’s decision on sentencing.

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