Honor the Humboldt Broncos and learn the lessons

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The only thing we really know about the collision at the intersection of Saskatchewan highways 35 and 335 is the extent of the tragedy. Sixteen members of the Humboldt Broncos family, all too young, were lost in early April when a bus and truck collided. Thirteen more were injured. The scars, both physical and emotional, remain.

We Canadians have honored them in the days that have followed. Hockey sticks remain on porches throughout my neighborhood, a show of support, an unanswered invitation for the boys to play. When the first of the funerals was held, many marked the occasion by wearing hockey jerseys to school and work. They’re subtle ways of showing that we’re all members of the same team. We mourn. We ache. We all, at this time, are Broncos.

But the nature of that collision between bus and truck still needs to be examined. The very fact that RCMP are rightfully protecting the name of the truck driver, and the lack of charges, prove questions remain.

Humboldt Broncos logo

The truck clearly had a stop sign, but did the driver heed the warning? Was his visibility obstructed by surrounding farms or the glare of a late-afternoon sun? Limited damage to the front end of the truck suggest that the bus hit the truck or the corner of its trailer, but we are left to wonder why. How fast, how far, how long: they are factors to be determined by tape measures and records. Reconstruction experts are left to examine scars on the road and the wreckage itself, trying to determine what vehicle was where. The answers to such questions will ultimately decide how RCMP respond.

But if we are truly to honor the memory of these lost boys, their coach, athletic therapist, play-by-play announcer, and bus driver, we must focus on broader issues and commit to steps that will make a lasting difference.

Some people have been all too quick in efforts to distance themselves from the tragedy. They point to the two-truck owner-operator, Calgary’s Adesh Deol Trucking, and refer to it as a “rogue” operator. But a company is not rogue because it is new, small, or independent. Hateful comments, the ones that are often whispered and don’t deserve to be repeated, focus on the owner’s name, Sukhmander Singh. Such rants refer to “them” as the real problem. Not one of us.

But this company is one of us – a business bound by the same rules and operating pressures as others. It doesn’t matter if the truck was owned by a fleet, owner-operator, or farm. It involved a truck, and this industry has a responsibility to step back and learn the lessons that emerge.

The site itself, the location of another fatal collision, might benefit from additional warnings, whether in the form of rumble strips or extra lighting. Both concepts have already been put forward by local elected officials.

Early comments from Singh, noting that his driver had been licensed for just over a year, suggest there may be opportunities to require further training for new drivers. Alberta had already been discussing mandatory entry-level training like the regime now in place in Ontario. B-trains, such as the one involved in this crash, are slower to accelerate, slower to brake. Perhaps their operators deserve a separate licence endorsement, reflecting the experience and additional training that could make a difference.

Such changes will not prevent every tragedy, though. With every step forward, new challenges emerge. Even after introducing mandatory training, Ontario continues to struggle to eliminate loopholes of “advanced standing” that allow schools to shortcut training. There are no limits on handing new drivers the keys to equipment they’ve never seen or handled in the past. No matter what training or technology is introduced, there will always be gaps, the openings that we didn’t foresee.

But we have to do something. We have to continue trying.

That’s how we will honor the team from Humboldt.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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