Mandatory training won’t fix everything, but it will help

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The chorus calling for improved and mandatory training for truck drivers is growing louder as the days pass following the Humboldt, Sask. truck/bus crash. We still don’t know the official cause of that crash, or what role driver training — or the lack thereof — played in the incident. I’m not inclined to believe it was a primary factor. I think what is playing in most peoples’ minds is the driver’s reported lack of experience.

A report in the Globe and Mail said the driver had “completed 15 days of training about two weeks [before the crash], but [little was known] about other experience or training the driver may have had.” Another report from Canadian Press said, “the driver … started working for [the company] about a month ago.”

There’s nowhere near enough information there to suggest inexperience or lack of training contributed to the crash, but if any good is to come from this incident it will be to put entry-level driver training on the national radar screen.

I am wholly supportive of more comprehensive entry-level training. I can’t come up with a single reason why some form of prescribed instruction shouldn’t be required before any prospective truck driver in Canada can apply to take a Class A or Class 1 driving test.

I agree with the steps Ontario has taken with its Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT) initiative. I was involved in the early stages of that project and firmly believe that it will produce better entry-level drivers. But it shouldn’t end there.

If the other Canadian provinces and territories decide to follow Ontario’s lead with something resembling MELT, we still won’t be much further ahead until those better-trained entry-level drivers acquire some experience. And that, unfortunately, is where even MELT falls short. Ontario’s MELT program doesn’t mandate any follow-up training or evaluation requirements for carriers that hire MELT graduates.

The A-list carriers, of course, will (and can) provide coaching and mentoring and finishing courses to their new-hires, but what about carriers further down the list — all the way down to the five- and 10-truck Mom & Pop fleets? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing those companies, but they probably don’t have the resources to provide the ongoing skills-development that new drivers, even MELT drivers, will still need.

As the 20- and 30-year drivers leave the industry, they are replaced by rookies. The industry is suffering more than a driver shortage. We’re facing a skills shortage, too. In recent months, the Ontario Provincial Police have been saying the rate of truck-involved crashes is up around the province, and there has been plenty of evidence of this on the evening news. There seems to have been a disproportionate number of pile-up-type crashes this winter on Ontario’s 400-series highways. While I know little about the results of the OPP investigations, the police are suggesting more than a bit of it was truck driver error — like driving too fast for conditions, not leaving enough room to stop, etc. — all signs of poor training and/or lack of experience. My feeling is that may of the drivers involved in those mishaps don’t have a lot of experience.

There have been plenty of calls from outside the industry for some form of graduated licensing for commercial drivers, but that’s not practical anymore. In days gone by, newly licensed drivers often began work in the city doing P&D work or running local freight where they could learn the craft before being tossed to the lions. The big demand today is for over-the-road drivers, and frankly, there’s no B-team when it comes to operating on the same roadways as everyone else.

Others say new drivers should be limited to certain types of equipment, like five-axle tandem/tandem combinations. But there are parts of this country where that kind of truck is rare, like in the north and the oil patch and in rural parts of some provinces. I don’t think a graduated licensing scheme would be viable in those areas.

In other industries employing “skilled” workers, such as plumbing, welding and electrical trades, new employees enter the workforce with the basic skills and a certificate attesting to their training. Over time they acquire experience and advance in pay grades and job classification. Not truck drivers. They train, they get hired and that’s about it. There’s often not a lot of oversight or career development opportunities beyond earning the Class 1 or Class A licence.

The demand for drivers is such today that new entrants are going to be put into situations they aren’t ready for. Mandatory entry-level training will better prepare them for the real world than a weekend-long introductory lesson to tractor-trailer driving, but we still need some follow-up and credentialing to give fleets and new drivers something to work toward — like a recognized apprenticeship program. That has been tried in Ontario, but it never gained traction for reasons we can all probably guess.

We will know soon enough what happened at the lonely crossroads in Saskatchewan, and we’ll know eventually what role the driver’s training and level of experience might have played. I can safely say in the interim that even drivers with 10 or 20 years’ experience do stupid things, like following mere feet off the rear bumper of the car out front and passing on two-lane highways where the safety margin is almost zero. I don’t think the mistakes they make today are related to the training they had when they started, but I’d like to think that if they were incentivized differently their driving behavior might be different. Some segments of the trucking still have a few lessons to learn about driver pay and safety.

Mandatory training for entry-level drivers is a good place to start, and I heartily endorse it, but it’s really just the beginning.

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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