[Editor’s note: Today’s post is completely different from any post I have made so far, please allow me to indulge in a topic that has been on my mind, and many minds for a long time.]
As you know, I am a professional truck driver, and since the tragic events of April 6th 2018, where 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos Hockey team were killed in a collision between their team bus and a semi-truck, the safety of truck drivers has been on everyone’s minds. This has been moreso over the last few weeks as the driver of that truck is now in court. He has pled guilty to all charges and accepts full responsibility and will be sentenced in the middle of March. Sadly no matter what his sentence is, it will never bring back those people who were killed, or repair the damage done to many more lives. But this accident is just one sign of the poor state of the trucking industry in Canada, and possibly in many other countries around the world. With that in mind, I am going to give a little history, and then some suggestions, some from me and some that I have gleamed from social media.
So lets go back, way back to 1980, and I was a teen of 16 years old. On my 16th birthday my mom took me to the licensing office and I wrote my beginners test to allow me to start to learn to drive a car. 20 days later, after a week of training by a professional driver trainer, AND having much on road experience with my parents, I passed my class 5 (regular) drivers license and I was off to the races (not literally). This license allowed me to drive all sorts of vehicles and in the years since I did just that. I am a terrible passenger, I love to be behind the wheel and had amassed thousands of kilometres in my driving experience. I had driven in all sorts of driving conditions from heavy snow, freezing rain, to the heat of summer and summer storms. Rarely have I felt fear behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Am I a good driver? I believe so, and my driving record speaks for it. Since I got my license back in 1980 I have been involved in FOUR recorded motor vehicle accidents, NONE of which was I at fault. The first was just weeks after I got my license and I was stopped at a red light when I was hit from behind and forced into the vehicle in front of me. My car was destroyed. The next two occurred in 1985, when Judy and I were dating, and they both involved deer hits on the highway. And the final one was in 2008 when I hit a wolf on the highway. I have avoided many other collisions including those involving other vehicles in my travels.
In 2009, I left my career as a grocery manager and decided to follow my dream of becoming a truck driver. I loved driving and had always wanted to drive a truck. With my 29 years of driving behind me, I thought it would be easy, and in some ways it was, but I also did have some struggles. My first real challenge was learning to ignore the clutch. Most truck drivers rarely use a clutch for shifting and its only used to start and stop. I’d driven many standard shift vehicles up until that time and was constantly on the clutch on every shift. At one point my trainer threatened to staple my foot to the floor if I kept using the clutch.
So the question becomes, how much training does a person need to drive a semi-truck? That all depends on who you ask, how much experience you have in larger vehicles, and the individual in question. There is no standard across the country, or in fact across Canada and the USA because if you have a licence in any province or state, you can drive anywhere in either country with very few exceptions. In Manitoba, currently there is no requirement that a driver have any training. All that is required is that the driver can pass the written tests and a practical air brake and driving test. If they satisfy those requirements they get their Class One license and they’re off and running.
The industry does offer two different course in Manitoba, a one week quickie course and an eight week indepth course. The one week course is supposed to be for experienced drivers to get a refresher, but that is not how it is marketed and not how it is used. Many novice drivers sign up for the one week course and some how make it through and get their license. The eight week course (which I signed up for) is a full course of classroom and practical training. At the end of the eight weeks a driver not only should know how to drive, but also should have the knowledge of logbooks, rules, laws, etc. I cannot see how all this can be crammed into a one week course.
When I first got behind the wheel of the semi on my first day in training, I couldn’t believe how big it felt. I was on a narrow, lightly travelled highway, and couldn’t force myself to drive faster than 60k/hr (35mph). The road seemed too narrow, the bridges didn’t seem to be wide enough for me and any other vehicle and I just felt like everything was closing in around me. After a few days I felt comfortable and was soon up to full highway speed. We eventually did driving in traffic in a small city, making lots of tight turns, stops and starts, backing, etc etc etc. So much repetition, but it was good.
After six weeks of training, my instructor felt I was ready for my test, and although I wasn’t fully onboard with him, I agreed to challenge it, and amazingly enough I passed it first time! Out of the sixteen people in my class, I was the first to challenge the test and the first to pass. But was I now a truck driver? I don’t think so. The skills we learned in training were designed to get us through the test, but they didn’t fully prepare us for life on the road. Only experience can do that, and experience with a fully trained and competent driver by our side!
My on the road training consisted of about 2 weeks with a trainer on the highways of Canada and the USA. I learned a lot during those 2 weeks and then also when I did a convoy trip to Laredo, TX with 3 other trucks from the company I was hired by. My training continued while I worked for that company, although most of it was informal. I started work a couple of years later driving for a chemical company that pulled mainly Super B trailers and they did a lot of formal training, but most of it was not driving related, and was more about the handling of the products, and different company procedures, The company I now work for, and have for the last four years, does very little training of any type, and drivers are expected to understand the rules and procedures very quickly.
Our industry as a whole is flawed, and the government regulations that support it are flawed also. Major changes are required in the aftermath of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash! We need to make every attempt to prevent an incident like that from every occuring again. And in my opinion I can make some suggestions that could be used as a starting point. These are not fully my ideas, but have been gleamed from various sources.
- Minimum 8 weeks of formal training before a test can be challenged.
- Minimum 8 weeks of on road training following the passing of test.
- Graduated driving license that restricts the size of loads, types of loads, hours of service, and routes travelled.
- Further standardized formal training required to haul dangerous goods, oversized loads, multiple trailers, or any product not covered in standard training.
- Formal standardized government testing after one year to move out of graduated license program.
- Mandatory formal winter driving training.
This is a short list, but a starting point. I’ve been driving on my professional license for just over 9 years and have driven an estimated 1.6 million kilometres (1 million miles). I’ve driven all over the USA and much of Canada and consider myself a pretty good driver. I’ve had zero accidents in my professional career, and any violations that I have incurred have been load related and not driving related. Although I do have the experience that I have, I still consider myself a rookie driver because I always feel that I have something to learn. When I feel that I know everything, then I think its time to give up and get out from behind the wheel. There are way too many truck drivers out there who feel that they know it all, and while they may be safe, it may only be a matter of time before something happens to change that.
We need to continue the conversation. Share this blog posting with others, start the conversation with the industry and government entities and lets make the roads safer for everyone. The legacy of the Humboldt Broncos crash should be something we can all be proud of.