Cowper bus crash, Frank generic
Cowper bus crash, Frank generic Jenna Thompson

Gruelling industry pushed truckies beyond the limit

"YOU know how you feel when you first wake up of a morning?"

"When you wake up, you're sparkling. Everything is there, and you're so alive… but you can't walk normally."

Frank Mitchell* is a frail man, his warm, lined face reflects decades of hardships, as he explains the effects of Ephedrine, a once popular prescription drug used to keep truck drivers alert, he bounds to his feet.

"You high step", he said acting it out as best he can before slowly finding his seat again.

Frank traipsed highways across Australia for decades. He loved his job as a truckie, enjoying the landscape and reflecting fondly on the comradery of other men on the road but alongside that came the unrelenting pressure and arduous hours of what was often a shattering profession.

Frank isn't proud of what he did to keep up with what his employers demanded of him. He knows he wasn't the only one who turned to substances to stop from dozing off, he was in the stark majority.

 

David Hutchins was behind the wheel of one of Australia's worst road disasters. When he veered his semi-trailer to the wrong side of the Pacific Highway and collided with a coach killing himself and 20 others, he soon became laid to blame for the tragedy.  

Hutchins is not a villain, in many ways he was a product of an unforgiving industry. According to Frank, any one of his mates could have been in that seat.

The crash happened at 3.54am, on the cusp of "dead time", known by truck drivers as the period between 2 and 4am when the most crashes happen.

David Hutchins
David Hutchins

A coronial inquest found Hutchins' system to be pumped with 80 times the regular amount of a chronic user of Ephedrine- the drug used for asthma sufferers had similar properties to amphetamines with one of the side effects being insomnia.

Coroner Kevin Waller couldn't determine the hours Hutchins' slept before the incident but found he had a maximum of just under 22 hours not driving in the 48-hour period before impact. It was likely a large chunk of this was spent loading and unloading his truck.

Waller said truck drivers tended to sleep in their truck cabins rather than footing the bill for a motel.

Frank's career began in the '50s and for most of his time behind the wheel "shifts didn't exist". Drivers were pushed to their limits with the task of ensuring companies maximised on profit.

"In those days we had to hand-load everything because every bit on the truck was money," he said.

"You didn't have pallets. Pallets took up weight, so they didn't get as much for a pallet on a truck."

A typical week, would start on Sunday evening. Frank would leave for Sydney and arrive in the early hours of Monday morning to unload, which depending on the line-up of trucks before you, would be finished by 1pm.

By the time the truck was reloaded - each truck took two to three hours to complete - it would be around 9pm.

"Then you had to be back in Brisbane the next morning and that's a good six-to-eight-hour drive," he said.

"You're not going to sleep. you might have a quick meal somewhere, a shower to freshen up.

"Get to Brisbane first thing in the morning and start unloading, well if you're lucky, get straight in, you'd probably finish unloading by midday.

"If you're lucky, load out the same place and away you go again, back down to Sydney."

On a good week, he'd get home to the NSW North Coast late Saturday morning, on a worse week, Sunday morning.

"Just in time for mum to do your washing, or if you were lucky, you had two suitcases."

"I didn't see my son for five years," he said smiling.

He can joke about it now, but the pain of walking in after his son had gone to bed and leaving before he woke again is written in his aged face.

"I suppose one in every 10 that didn't take tablets, they took something else. they might take fizzes, like salt and coke. But they still took some thing to give them a boost," he said.

"It was common (drugs)… the best gear was Benzedrine. That gear was the best kicker, keep you going," he said.

"I could have a day off sleeping and I could do 92 hours.It just makes you feel awake. There'd be times you'd say 'I don't remember driving from Taree to Coffs... why? Where was I?'

Frank reflects fondly on the mateship between truckies on the road. He couldn't shake the thought of losing another friend to the perils of the road.    

Whether a stranger or a friend from your regular route, Frank and many others would look out for one another where they could.

"There was tablets we used to keep for the bludgers. There was a lot of guys on the road who'd say 'oh, I've run out, do you have anything?'"

"You'd keep the good stuff for yourself. And anyone who'd bludge, they got whatever you didn't want to use yourself, but you always kept around about a dozen on board just for those sorts of things."

In the 1960s and 1970s Ephedrine and Benzedrine were the "good stuff".

Police had cottoned on to the ubiquity of the prescription goods, often turning cabins upside down on a hunt to catch them.

"Police started to bounce on us pretty heavy with it. Myself and an old chap, got pulled out this side of Warwick.

"We got stripped, strip searched, then they pulled our cabinets to pieces, looking for tablets.

"When they couldn't find anything, they just hopped in their car and drove away"

At the time, Ephedrine and Benzedrine weren't illicit substances at the time, they were prescribed by chemists and GPs.

"You ask a chemist first of all… you need something to keep you safe on the road and if he couldn't help
you, you'd go to your own doctor, tell him the situation and he'd usually say
right here's 20 tablets. I want to see you when you've used 10 of them."

Despite their ubiquity, Frank said the tablets were shrouded in taboo, only discussed if they saw a colleague at risk.

"The tablets were never spoken about unless the other driver was getting really doughy and dropping the head," he said.

"You'd notice the vehicle just behind you, if you were a decent driver you'd say 'Shell servo coming. Want a cuppa?' and pull off and you'd hope like hell he'd come in, have a cuppa or hit the bunk"

Frank knows every bend in the Pacific Highway, he'll never forget the tight proximity of heavy vehicles on the road.

"A vehicle is coming past you in the other direction, your mirror and their mirror passes at one and a half inches.

"I've had mirrors smashed in the face. I've seen a lot of blokes who got it in their face."

The Pacific Highway upgrade will be completed next year with dual carriage-way from Newcastle to south of Brisbane.
The Pacific Highway upgrade will be completed next year with dual carriage-way from Newcastle to south of Brisbane. Caitlan Charles

It became common, he said, for truckies to have their windows at a specific height, not so high the glass would shatter into your face but not so low a side-mirror could assault you.

Frank has seen the worst road travel can bring. The carnage, death and destruction that came as a result of himself and his colleagues being forced to a point of no return.

By the end of Frank's career and moving forward conditions for truck drivers have improved dramatically.  Drivers have curfews, many required to stop driving after 11pm, and not exceed 90km/h.

"I reckon they've done the best thing in the world."

"I wish it was in when I was driving. I'd have a lot more mates around today if it did."

Of all these changes, there is one thing Frank fundamentally disagrees with.

"99 per cent of drivers would say it's the worst bit of road in Australia. Any driver worth his salt would say there was not a bloody thing wrong with it," he said.

"What they're doing to it is an abomination. You put a straight bit of road down. I'm relaxed. What happens when you're relaxed? You slow-down in your actions. your reactions to something coming at you."
 

*Name changed for privacy. 



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