Fatal road smashes involving trucks are costing the Waikato tens of millions of dollars a year, with truckies at fault in about a third of them.
But trucking bosses say many motorists take "horrendous" risks around trucks and that the vast majority of deadly crashes are avoidable.
New figures released by the NZ Transport Agency show trucks were involved in more than 180 fatal crashes on Waikato roads since 2002 - including 48 in the past 3 years.
Truckies were found culpable in about 35 per cent of fatal smashes.
This year, truckies have been at fault in five, of nine, fatal crashes, with the agency estimating the social cost of the crashes at $23.5 million.
But David Boyce, chief executive officer at NZ Trucking Association, said the NZTA statistics were "misleading" and industry figures showed truckies were at fault in only 15 per cent of crashes.
He said most truck drivers had horrific tales of near-misses.
"If you look at some of the camera footage from some of the trucks you'll regularly see some horrendous driving manoeuvres going on around trucks. It's pretty hard to avoid a car when it's on your side of the road."
Road Transport Association New Zealand area executive manager Gary Masters said the skill level of most truck drivers was high, with the industry committing "huge resources" to ongoing driver training.
One of the most significant road-safety issues was commuters not appreciating the space trucks needed to manoeuvre.
"That's a big problem in our industry. A truck just can't brake and swerve like a car can, so when drivers change lanes quickly or pull out in front of a truck at an intersection, you have a problem."
Bryan Smith, owner of Taupo-based haulage firm Self Loader Logging, said it was every truck driver's "worst nightmare" to be involved in a fatal smash. Many motorists took unnecessary risks overtaking trucks, and did not appear to appreciate the distance trucks needed to stop.
"People are terrible at trying to sneak up on the inside lane. But they panic when they realise they've underestimated the length of the truck and the lanes start to merge. The golden rule is, if you can't see the truck's mirrors, he can't see you," he said.
Freight movements are expected to double on New Zealand roads over the next 30 years, with Waikato, Auckland and the Bay of Plenty experiencing the heaviest growth.
As of July 31, 66,498 trucks were registered in Waikato.
NZTA freight portfolio director Harry Wilson said a key focus for the agency over the next three years was enabling 50MAX high-productivity motor vehicles (50 MAX HPMVs) on to roads.
The trucks are longer than the standard 44-tonne trucks and have nine axles in order to operate at 50 tonnes maximum total weight.
This month, the Waikato District Council gave the green light for 50MAX HPMVs on its roads.
Mr Wilson said the introduction of bigger trucks would have significant safety benefits, allowing fewer trucks to move more freight. The new trucks also had more advanced safety features than older vehicles, such as electronic stability control.
AA principal adviser Mark Stockdale said the 50MAX HPMVs were more efficient but did not accept their introduction would make Waikato roads safer or reduce truck numbers.
"It doesn't mean we're going to see fewer trucks on the road because freight volumes are going to increase. It just means that increase in truck numbers will be less," he said.
AA supported changes to the heavy-vehicle regime, Mr Stockdale said, but did not believe safety features on the larger trucks went far enough.
"One thing which we believe should be compulsory is under-run barriers on all truck trailers to prevent cars or motorcycles from going under trailers. These new, larger trucks are going to be in the fleet for the next 20 years but they're not as safe as they could be. If the trucking industry want them they should be built to the safest possible standard."
This year the Waikato regional road safety education group launched its "elephant vs mouse" campaign, educating motorists on how to behave around heavy motor vehicles. The key messages were for motorists to indicate clearly and be aware truck drivers need more space to manoeuvre.
- © Fairfax NZ News