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Mandatory Driver Training: About Time

Posted: October 30, 2014 by Rolf Lockwood

Better late than never, I guess. But 30 years late? Not good enough.

Two days after the Toronto Star published an article on truck-driver training and licensing, one that exposed to the public some pretty dirty laundry, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca said he would work towards mandatory entry-level training for class A truck drivers. Incredibly, that would make Ontario the first province to do so. In fact, as far as I can tell, such a training mandate would be the first in North America.

Apparently Del Duca has also discussed the idea of a national training standard with his fellow provincial ministers.

Gosh, this rings a bell. Could it be that your sometimes humble scribe proposed the same idea 30-plus years ago? Yep. Could it be that I also wasted ink back then moaning about Ontario’s completely non-existent control over truck-driver training and the schools that purported to provide it? Yep again.

Yours truly got sued for libel in the process, I’ll proudly add, though I’m also happy to say that it was an unsuccessful attempt to punish me for telling the truth about the driver-training mess we faced in 1981.

No governmental knees jerked back then, not like now, and I have to note that the industry did not rally around the idea either.

The difference, of course, is that the Star reaches the public, and it relishes any chance to characterize trucking as a disreputable business that puts them at risk with every kilometer rolled. Its readership laps up this ill-informed stuff, I suppose, because they keep throwing dirt our way. The sad thing is that they did us a service in this case, because the state of affairs I bitched about three decades back has hardly changed in the intervening years.

The recent article in question — “Big-truck ‘licensing mills’ put public at risk”, Oct 10, see here — was written by reporters Kenyon and Mary Ormsby.

“The Star found two dozen unregulated schools in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] that offer to teach students just enough to earn their AZ licence — required to operate a tractor-trailer with air brakes — and to clear new drivers with scant hours behind the wheel to operate a vehicle about 40 times heavier than a car,” they wrote.

“These unregulated schools, called ‘licensing mills’ by experienced truckers, thrive by exploiting a provincial loophole. They evade government scrutiny by charging $999 or less, just under the $1,000 threshold the province has set for regulated courses.”

Nothing new here to us, nor to the government, which has fostered this situation by failing to take charge.

Obviously I’m not the only one calling for training standards. The Ontario Trucking Association says it “has built a coalition of support for mandatory entry level training that includes all the major truck insurance companies, the association representing the province’s truck driver training industry, safety groups and the national association of shippers.”

Good.

I wasn’t entirely alone in asking for action back in 1981, but the industry was dead silent. Except for my late chum and mentor Merv Orr, Reimer’s first owner-operator back in the 1950s, who was by then operating a driving school in Cambridge, Ont. A good one, with an intensive three-week course that actually did produce decent truck drivers.

Merv was incensed by the growth of cut-rate schools that produced test-passers but not drivers, and he badgered the provincial government to establish training standards. To silence him, he ultimately concluded, they let him set up and chair a committee intended, first, to find the right way to regulate driving schools. The next step would be to devise minimum course requirements. Long before anything was achieved, he gave up in utter disgust when it became clear that he had no real support from any corner. Not long afterwards his school was bankrupt because he was unwilling to lower his standards enough to compete with the price-cutters.

It’s worth noting that Europe is way ahead of us on this front. The European Parliament first broached the idea of Europe-wide training and licensing standards back in 2003, I think. It took a long while but the regulations were finally established and they went into effect very recently.

My friend and fellow truck writer Colin Barnett, editor of Truck & Driver magazine in the U.K., tells me that the Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) had to be obtained by all professional truck and bus drivers as of last month. Existing drivers have to complete five seven-hour course modules, and repeat them every five years. New drivers have to undergo similar training following their basic licence acquisition before driving professionally.

Perfection, however, has clearly not been reached there. Not yet, anyway.

“It was a good idea but badly enacted,” Colin explains. “It’s possible to attend the same module five times. It’s attendance-based with no skills test, and there’s no mandatory syllabus. Also, many countries on the mainland negotiated a two-year extension to the deadline.”

It’s also instructive to know that the U.K.’s own driving test leaves ours — anything in North America — in the dust. It’s tough, and I know Germany’s isn’t much different. Likely others too.

When he did his driving test back in 1991, Colin explains, “it was two hours on the road, with only a couple of minor errors permitted. Since then, we’ve acquired a separate test to haul a trailer or semi-trailer, then we had hazard-perception testing added before the on-road test. The two on-road tests each normally require five days instruction with a professional instructor.”

Hazard-perception training? Wow.

Compare that with our test in Ontario, where maybe 20 minutes on the road does it, and that won’t necessarily include highway driving. Heck, for many years you could even take your test in a pickup truck with a fifth-wheel house trailer out back. Gee whiz…

So, getting back to the main point here, I’m more than a little happy to see this new initiative, even if it was sparked by a fear-mongering newspaper article and not by our own demands. With a little luck the idea of mandatory entry-level training will spread to other jurisdictions. And with a little more luck — actually it will take a lot — the curriculum used will be worth having.

The wonder of it all is that our industry’s safety record has been improving in spite of all the shortcomings of the training and testing regimes we’re forced to live with. There are many perfectly good schools, of course, but I have to put those improvements down in large part to the in-house efforts of carriers who have no choice but to do real training of new recruits who are licensed but incompetent. There will always be fleet-specific instruction required, but think of the time and money to be saved if you didn’t have to start at ground zero.

We need to get behind this ‘new’ idea and push it over the top. Right across the country.

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