Paying the Piper: There is blame to share in Humboldt tragedy

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Now we know what happened at that cold crossroads near Tisdale, Sask., where 16 lives were snuffed out in an instant, 13 people were badly injured, and the expected arc of dozens of families was irrevocably knocked off kilter.

A truck driver, stressing over the billowing tarps on his load of peat moss, was concerned they posed a hazard to drivers in oncoming traffic. So focused was he on that hazard that he failed to notice several warning signs and an oversized, lighted stop sign as he approached an intersection.

A report from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper (the media outlet with the best coverage I have seen of the trial) says 30-year-old Jaskirat Singh Sidhu had just 15 minutes earlier stopped and adjusted the tarps slung over his load of peat moss bales. The paper quotes Sidhu’s lawyer, Mark Brayford, saying his client was completely distracted by the flapping tarp.

Brayford said Sidhu had already stopped once to re-secure the tarps, but apparently they had come loose again.

While Sidhu knows his attention should have been on the road, “There was no evidence that he chose to drive through the stop sign, as shocking as it was that the signage wasn’t reacted to,” Brayford told court, adding his client beats himself up every day over why he didn’t notice the signs or stop, the newspaper story says.

Speaking on the final day of his sentencing hearing, after listening to dozens of victim impact statement over the preceding four days, Sidhu himself addressed the court, saying he takes “full responsibility for what has happened. It happened because of my lack of experience.”

The paper reports Sidhu stood in front of the wooden table where he sat for the past four days, leaning on it with balled-up fists and looking down whenever he struggled to speak.

“I can’t even imagine what you are going through, what you have been through. I’ve taken the most valuable things of your life,” he said. “I am so, so, so, so, so sorry about this pain.”

Sidhu talked about hearing “kids crying” when he emerged from his semi, not knowing what had happened. Then he saw the bus, the paper notes.

You can read the story here. It’s beautifully written and captures the spirit of the moment.

There was a man standing in a room, confronted by a crowd of angry and confused and even sympathetic people, facing what must be the worst situation imaginable. He had honorably already pleaded guilty to all the charges against him, now he was admitting to the families and friends of the victims what had happened that day. It’s what everyone wanted to hear, and he still managed to get the words out. It would have taken enormous strength to do that.

I think Sidhu himself is the other tragedy in this story. He certainly did not set out that day hurt anyone. No driver does, but because of his admitted lack of experience, the errors piled up and eventually buried him. As odd as it may sound, his lawyer said he was worried about the impact of his billowing tarps on other drivers. His concern was for their safety, apparently, but we know where that brought him.

How many other drivers, preoccupied with a problem, have found themselves overly focused on it to the detriment of other developing problems? I think few of us could claim a career free of moments like that.

The really sad part is that the industry let him down. The narrative of this story doesn’t read like he worked for a supportive company — one that provided the training he needed to tarp a load properly.

It was reported earlier in sentencing hearing that his logbook and vehicle inspection reports contained 70 “errors.” I call them errors; the officials call them violations. You can read the reports here (there are links on this page to the reports). They are mostly technical in nature: failing to indicate the time and place of a duty status change, failing to not the location of the start of the day, failing to complete the reports, pre-signing the log before the shift had begun… These were not the sort of violations we’d see from someone trying to beat the system for his own gain. It appears to me that he simply had no idea what he was doing.

We may never know how he came to be working for that company, and we do not yet know much about his employment history as a driver. We don’t know where he was trained, who passed him for his driving test or even how good a driver (steering and gearing) he was. Nothing in what happened suggests he lacked basic driving skills, but he certainly was never coached in the myriad other duties a driver is supposed to fulfill.

I’m sure many drivers have found themselves in over their heads a few times in their careers: driving in New York City for the first time, the first trip through Kicking Horse Pass, a heavy cargo that had to loaded just right to keep the axle weights legal …

Learning how to be a professional driver is scary as hell, and its much worse when you don’t have a supportive company behind you.

Sidhu faced all those challenges on his own and they eventually overwhelmed him. As a former rookie driver, those days now some 40 years past, I can still remember the terror I felt pulling A-train tankers north on Ontario’s Hwy. 69 into a winter storm. Fortunately for me the older drivers of the day were willing to take me under their wing and coach and cajole me into getting the job done without hurting anyone.

Sadly, that’s not the case today. We deride the young driver as inexperienced (ya figure) and unthoughtful and even stupid. Maybe they are just too self-conscious to ask questions, and few of us seem willing anymore to step in and offer help.

If many of today’s new drivers lack basic skills, it’s not because they are stupid or ignorant, but because they were never taught properly, or didn’t have willing mentors and coaches to help them learn. Or they worked for companies that saw then as easily exploitable because they had little experience and few prospects of getting hired by a bigger and better company.

I wish Jaskirat Singh Sidhu well in what ever fate has in store for him. He made mistakes and the consequences was orders of magnitude beyond what he deserved. My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy and I hope their calls for better training for truck drivers don’t go unheeded.

I doubt Sidhu will ever drive again, but there was a time when he wanted to. If we’re going to resolve the labor crisis we face in trucking, we have got to stop eating our young.

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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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