Fatal crashes that involve heavy trucks could be sharply reduced if road safety were made a higher government priority

The reason there were fewer wrecks in the old horse-and-buggy days is because the driver didn’t have to depend entirely on his own intelligence.
– Anonymous

For the past several years, on a part-time basis, I’ve been assisting the non-profit Canadian Owner-Operators’ Cooperative (COOC) in its efforts to lower its trucking members’ operating costs. These mainly include the costs of insurance, fuel, tires, and maintenance.

But a much more crucial campaign the COOC has undertaken has been to improve driving safety and decrease the involvement of heavy trucks in highway crashes.

Nearly 2,000 Canadians are killed each year and another 10,000 seriously injured in collisions involving a heavy truck (one with a gross vehicle weight greater than 12,000 pounds). Even on a per-distance-travelled basis, large trucks have a fatality rate double the rate for all other vehicles.

The tendency, unfortunately, is for most people to blame the truck drivers, rather than the onerous, stressful, underpaid, sleep-deprived conditions under which they are forced to drive.

To put these conditions in context, it is first necessary to understand that Canada is the second largest country in the world, with a land mass of 9,984,670 kilometres and a road network that spans nearly 900,000 km. More than 90% of all consumer products and perishables in this country are now being shipped by truck. With the rise in population and demand, the number of large trucks on our roads has surged over the past decade from 740,000 to more than 1,200,000. (This number is expected to rise even higher in the future – by a projected additional 30,000 by 2020).

As a consequence, passenger vehicles have to share much busier highways with more big trucks, in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day and night. The need to improve road safety to account for these increasingly arduous driving conditions should be apparent to our transportation authorities, but seemingly is not.

Let’s look first at the failure to deal with truck drivers’ most serious problems.

Hours of service: Although there are legal limits on hours of work, many truck drivers are pressured by their supervisor — over long-distance phone connection — to ignore these limits and keep driving longer.

In the past, drivers had some autonomy. They were paid by the mile, not on the time of an entire trip. They could split their 12-hour operating days into four-hour work and four-hour rest periods. They could even stop to “sit out” congested rush hour traffic when their speed was hampered.

Now they have to keep driving perilously without adequate rest. Their subsequent fatigue is unquestionably a factor in many of the crashes that occur, especially when combined with insufficient training.

One of the obvious signs of this reduction in drivers’ rest periods has been the closure of hundreds of highway truck stops that used to cater to tired drivers, and the elimination of all the parking spaces they used to provide. A driver now has trouble finding anywhere to park, even in an emergency.

Inadequate pay: Taking inflation into account, truck drivers are not being paid significantly more today than they were 40 years ago. They are working longer and harder while falling further behind in their buying capacity. There are three reasons for this grossly inadequate compensation.

First, unlike their counterparts in Europe and other advanced countries, truck drivers in Canada don’t have a union to represent and negotiate for them. Even truckers in the United States have a strong “association” to protect and promote their interests. But in Canada our truck drivers, in effect, are at the mercy of the trucking firms that employ them. On average, they are paid the industry’s minimum wage, which Service Canada estimates is no more than $21 an hour and a meager $40,000 a year.

Second, Canadian truck drivers are not officially recognized as having a skilled trade, as they are in other countries. While unionized workers in the building trades are paid quite well on the basis of their acknowledged abilities, Canadian truck drivers are still treated as untrained industrial labourers, and paid as such. (The province of Ontario, to its credit, is in the process of elevating truck driving to the status of a skilled trade, but no such initiative is evident elsewhere in the country and clearly not at the federal level.)

Third, the training of truck drivers in Canada still lacks the required level of proficiency. In a letter they sent last year to federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau, Rick Beckwith and Ray Gompf of the COOC pointed out that entry-level driver training is still not mandatory in Canada, either federally or provincially.

“There are several good private training schools that turn out good drivers,” Beckwith conceded, “but most others provide barely enough training to pass a basic Class A-1 test. Many thousands of new truck drivers, therefore, are ill-equipped for the onerous job of driving big rigs on our crowded highways.”

It’s a dangerous deficiency that will continue and worsen until the first-rate training of truck drivers is made a legal precondition for getting a driving licence.

“Unless and until truck driving is recognized as a skilled trade,” says Beckwith, “the fly-by-night trainers will continue to teach as little as possible to applicants who seek the skills they need to drive large tractor-trailers.”

Need for more drivers

We have a trucking industry in which thousands of older and more experienced drivers have retired or plan to retire soon, and most of whose younger replacements are not being properly trained. And this at a time when the demand for additional capable drivers has never been greater.

Recruiting such drivers will be very difficult, given the failure of employers and governments to make the pay adequate and the job less strenuous. The graduates of our high schools have no reason to regard trucking as an attractive occupation — especially not those whose fathers have been truck drivers and who don’t want their sons to be subjected to the same brutal and underpaid working conditions.

“Why on earth,” asks Gompf, “would anyone want to have a job that pays just a few dollars an hour more than is paid the employee of a fast-food restaurant? The hamburger-flipper can go home every night instead of being responsible for delivering multi-million-dollar cargos, forced to drive without rest periods, risking life and limb, hardly ever getting to sleep in his own bed – and all this just to be paid not that much above the legal minimum wage?”

The answer is that, given the failure of both trucking companies and governments to improve these atrocious working conditions, trucking is one of the least enticing career prospects for Canada’s high school graduates. Nor does the ongoing corporate and political dereliction bode well for the prevention of future highway crashes.

Federal government unresponsive

In their letter to Garneau, Beckwith and Gompf described all these faults and failures that permeate Canada’s trucking industry.

“Clearly, Canada’s commercial truck drivers are desperately in need of help,” they told the minister. “Without a union to serve them, they are unable to bargain for better treatment on their own. They are completely reliant on the governments that regulate the trucking industry – especially the federal government.

“We are sure that, if the appalling number of preventable fatalities and injuries being incurred on the roads and highways of Canada were to be incurred proportionately by the airline industry, your department would be promptly and fervently committed to their prevention. This is largely because, unlike mundane road trips, air travel is a prominent and glamorous form of transport (for politicians and celebrities) and thus ranks much more highly with both government and the media.

“A plane crash, even with few casualties, or even a near crash, garners front-page headlines and coverage that can last for weeks. But a multi-vehicle highway crash, though it may kill or maim a dozen or more, makes the TV and tabloid news for a day or two and then is forgotten, to be replaced a week or so later by the next big pileup on the 401.

“It’s as if our governments have become inured to the carnage on our streets and highways. It’s as if they now consider the frequency and lethality of such ‘accidents’ to be unavoidable, even normal, and thus not something that calls for effectual preventive measures. While the highly publicized airline and railway crashes put pressure on governments to improve air and rail safety, the much more numerous fatalities and injuries suffered from road crashes are met with token remedial efforts, if not outright indifference.

“We are still hopeful, however, that, despite the comparative lack of public pressure to improve safety on our roads and highways – for the drivers of trucks as well as the drivers and passengers of automobiles – your government will not remain insensitive to the urgent need for road safety enhancement.”

However, given the minister’s persistent inaction on highway safety during the many months since he received this letter, the trucking Co-Op leaders’ hopes are fading fast.