Danger on the highway

The commercial trucking industry is in for an overhaul on the Prairies.

Cases of bad drivers, inadequate training schools and, in Alberta, a flawed road-test system have all contributed to unsafe conditions on public highways, sources say.

Governments have put the issue of trucking safety at the forefront due to recent high-profile collisions involving semi-tractor trailers, one notably being the Humboldt Broncos hockey team tragedy in April, in which 16 people were killed and 13 injured.

As well, the crash involving Ontario dairy farmers Henk and Bettina Schuurmans has kept the issue on the radar. The couple were promoting the Canadian dairy sector across Canada when their tractor was hit by a semi-trailer in July near Saskatoon. Bettina died following the crash, while Henk was left severely injured.

To help improve road safety, advocates have called for the introduction of mandatory training for new truckers wanting to get their Class 1 or 2 licences, which allow them to drive large commercial vehicles.

Prairie provincial governments are taking note of that idea.

Alberta plans to implement mandatory training for Class 1 and 2 licences by next year, while Saskatchewan and Manitoba are considering it. As well, Saskatchewan is working to improve and standardize a training program for Class 1 drivers.

Across Western Canada, semi-tractor trailers transport most of the grains and oilseeds and nearly all of the livestock with the vast majority of farmers having Class 1 licences. A shortage of licenced drivers, among other farm skills, has made some producers anxious about additional regulations, but most see the need for enhanced safety.

All three provincial trucking associations support mandatory training. While they point out that the majority of drivers are safe, dangerous situations happen on the road every day.

“They’ve got some drivers out here that don’t have a clue,” said Joann Hansen, a truck driver with Griffin Logistics. “On my last trip, people were weaving in and out of traffic. You don’t do that with a big truck. They’re going too fast.”

Jerry Leschuk, a fuel truck driver with Waiward Construction, has also seen dangerous driving on the highway.

“I see a lot of stupid moves, people pulling over immediately with no light, no flasher, no nothing,” he said. “I believe there are too many people on the highway with no experience, no training.”

While mandatory training would improve safety, many say it would also ensure training schools are giving new entrants a thorough education.

Some schools do a bad job of teaching, leaving students ill-prepared to work for a company, said Terry Shaw, executive director with the Manitoba Trucking Association.

“Some schools are just teaching them how to pass the driving test rather than preparing them for the real world,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid with mandatory training.”

Trucking associations say inadequate schools also exist in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“They are not all on par,” said Susan Ewart, executive director with the Saskatchewan Trucking Association.

Andrew Barnes, director of compliance and regulatory affairs with the Alberta Motor Transport Association, said many companies are re-training drivers before they hit the road.

However, a few companies exist that will let people drive even if they’ve never been trained, he said. As long as they have their Class 1, they’re good to go.

“Drivers are being pushed through the system,” Barnes said. “Passing your driver’s test doesn’t mean you’re qualified.”

Ontario is the only province that requires new entrants to take a minimum of 103.5 hours of mandatory training. The province implemented the training last year after it was discovered that some driving schools were offering sub-par education.

In Alberta, however, a re-jig of the entire road-test system is being considered.

Unlike Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Alberta’s road-test system is privatized. The province regulates, licenses and monitors driver examiners, but they aren’t government employees. Some say this model has allowed for rule-breaking, particularly when it comes to issuing Class 1 licences.

“One guy was issuing Class 1 licences at $500 a pop,” said Pete Llewellyn, executive director of the Certified Drivers Examiners Association in Alberta. “That was probably 20 years ago and he was charged. I do not know of anybody in the last five years that has been charged.”

Llewellyn acknowledged a few bad actors, but said most examiners follow the rules.

His claims have been backed up by a third-party review of Alberta’s road-test system. The review, conducted by Tantus Solutions Group in 2016, found there have been complaints of issuing fake documents, bribery, fraud and sexual harassment.

“The report concludes the system is broken,” Brian Mason, Alberta’s transportation minister, said during a news conference in July, noting there has been a lack of oversight and regulation within the industry.

Llewellyn said he wants to see more oversight, but added the province played a role in the current situation by letting things fall through the cracks. He alleged the government has allowed inadequate examiners to continue working.

In one case, he said, an examiner was allowed to continue carrying out road tests even though he failed the course and the monitoring process.

In another instance, he said someone was found to have significantly weak skills during the monitoring process and should have been monitored more closely. However, provincial officials failed to do so. This case was referenced in the 2002 Alberta auditor general’s report.

In the Tantus report, it found that the training and testing model doesn’t allow candidates to fail. The review said if examiners are unsuccessful in their test, they are coached, retrained and re-tested until they pass.

The province has since strengthened enforcement and introduced fines to help ensure compliance, but Llewellyn said more could be done.

“We offered them solutions, like being able to use our scheduling system to know where each examiner is, but they’ve never taken it up.”

The Manitoba and Saskatchewan trucking associations have said they are not aware of bribery, fraud or issuing fake documents in those provinces. Both provinces operate under a public system, where examiners are government employees under Saskatchewan Government Insurance or Manitoba Public Insurance.

To improve oversight, Mason has said he is considering whether Alberta driver examiners should be hired as government employees.

Llewellyn, however, would rather see better oversight of the current model.

“Do Albertans really want to subsidize somebody else’s road test through their taxes?” he said.

“There may be some benefits to it, but if we become government examiners, it’s not like all of these problems will go away all of a sudden. The majority of problems stem from the government lacking in their job.”

Alberta is also addressing other problematic rules.

The province currently gives new trucking companies temporary 60-day safety certificates to allow them to operate before knowing that they are actually safe. Alberta is the only province that allows this rule. Mason has said the government plans on ending it.

As well, if companies see their safety fitness certificates temporarily suspended, they can register as a new company to begin operating again.

As for other measures that could improve safety, many in the industry have said adding more rest stops accessible to trucks would help.

As well, Shaw said compelling companies to use electronic devices to log hours, rather than penciling them down, will help ensure drivers aren’t driving for longer-than-normal periods of time. With paper logs, he said, drivers can fudge their hours to meet tight deadlines.

“The electronic logs will ensure people are subscribed to the rules. That’s kind of the point,” Shaw said.

The federal government is requiring all commercial trucks and buses to install the electronic log systems by 2020. Commercial vehicles manufactured before 2000 will be exempt.

Truck accidents on the Prairies:

  • In 2017, Alberta RCMP responded to 49 crashes that involved semi-trailers. In total, they responded to 218 collisions.
  • In Saskatchewan, there were 1,041 collisions involving power units for semi-trailers in 2017, according to provincial insurer SGI. In total, there were 29,035 crashes involving motor vehicles of any kind that year.
  • In Manitoba, light trucks are involved in 9,800 collisions yearly, according to Manitoba Public Insurance. On average, passenger vehicles are involved in 48,000 collisions.

Source: Staff research

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