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Success of truck driver training standards will depend on the details

Posted: February 6, 2019 by John G. Smith

Canada’s transportation and highway safety ministers promise to develop a national training standard for entry-level truck drivers no later than January 2020.

It’s right there in black and white, inked in one of the formal communiques that emerge after politicians huddle behind closed doors. The federal transport minister noted how Canadians expect truck drivers to be “properly prepared” before being licensed. Several industry associations applauded everyone for their commitment to mandatory entry-level training (MELT). Handshakes all around.

But these associations may be victims of wishful thinking. There was no reference to “mandatory” training. Not by ministers, and not in the communique.

There’s a good reason. Individual provinces still have the final say in training, testing, and licensing. The best the federal government can do through the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) and the National Safety Code (NSC) is to help provinces find some common ground.

The challenge here is that it will be far too easy to write a vague national standard. Any meaningful change will involve specific requirements, and plenty of details.

Consider a requirement that says a new driver should be able to back a tractor-trailer into a loading dock. Is backing up in a straight line enough, or should the maneuver be completed from the blind side, and within a certain distance? How long should the trailer be? Many of these details are already established in a National Occupational Standard for truck drivers, so much of the homework is done, but provinces still decide what trainees need to prove during written exams and road tests.

The debate about a minimum number of training hours adds yet another layer to the discussion. Just how long will it take an entry-level driver – someone just entering the industry – to establish a basic foundation in these skills? Someone who grows up around farm machinery could master different tasks more quickly than someone who has never driven anything larger than a Prius, after all.

Further confusing matters are the supporters of specific training programs who suggest their way of teaching is best.

The debate about a training standard should be less about those who complete superior programs – such as the 615 hours of training available through the Centre de Formation du Transport Routier – and more about drivers who can earn a licence with little more than a bit of a time with a licensing mill. Ontario didn’t ban superior training programs, for example, but it set a floor at 103.5 hours in a classroom and behind the wheel.

Policy wonks then need to struggle with questions about whether to recognize previous  training. In Ontario, this has left a loophole that allows licensing mills to train drivers to a lower class of licence, and after a minimum level of time, recognizing that lower class as the reason to shortcut the 103.5 hours of training that’s needed to earn a Class A. There’s always someone willing to game the system.

Want to bend your mind a little further? Consider the agreements that allow a licence earned in one jurisdiction to be recognized in another. As much as a province might want to set a higher standard, it could simply force people into a neighboring province to earn a licence there. Trade would grind to a halt if drivers with lesser training were stopped at provincial borders, too.

Above all, we need to remember that this debate is not meant to be the final word in training. Trucking is a lifelong learning experience, with drivers building on their basic skills during time on the job. Every route, piece of equipment, storm front, or personal interaction offers a chance to learn something new.

In the name of highway safety, however, it’s time to take steps that will develop a solid foundation in entry-level skills. It’s time for every province to head into the weeds.

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