HOPE, B.C. – According to Jamie Davis, B.C.’s Coquihalla Highway is not the highway through hell it used to be – and if there’s anyone who would know, it’s Jamie Davis.
Well known for his company’s role in the popular Discovery Channel show Highway Thru Hell, Davis told Truck West that a lot has changed since he first put himself and Jamie Davis Motor Truck and Auto in front of the camera, so much so that he has had to reconfigure his business model.
And the reasons behind Davis’ changed business approach is a testament to the job the trucking industry has done to bring the importance of safety to the forefront of how it does business.
“Accidents are down 36% on the Coquihalla (Highway) since the show began,” Davis said. “I think in general, with the push on safety, the recovery side of our business is becoming more and more unprofitable.”
Davis said safety enforcement is much more prevalent now than it was even a few years ago, and the equipment being put on our highways is much more advanced with the most up-to-date safety systems.
“You’re not dealing with a lot of the same things you were dealing with before,” he said. “A lot of companies will not travel past Calgary nowadays because they won’t go over the Coq in the winter time.”
Davis said the reduction in accidents is more about safety enforcement and companies not wanting to foot the bill when they occur.
“Accidents are expensive and they cost money,” Davis said. “Trucking companies are doing everything they can to be safe and enforcement is right there, and the kind of cowboy mentality you used to have isn’t in the industry as much…it’s more of a business. And, yes, a lot of people say there’s not so many great drivers on the road, but at the end of the day, we’re not seeing it (accidents) as much.”
As of the end of August, Davis’ company had only been dispatched to four or five wrecks. When Highway Thru Hell first started in 2012, Davis said they were doing wrecks every 12 hours during a winter season.
But times are changing.
“We’re really finding ourselves gearing down somewhat,” Davis said of heavy-duty recovery. “There’s more seriousness to the safety aspect and it’s affected what we do.”
Recovery is just one aspect of Davis’ business, but it is by far the most expensive.
“Whatever work we did kind of paid for the service,” he said. “We were touch-and-go on the revenue and it wasn’t always a big win financially to do that work…it’s very expensive and the rewards financially aren’t really there…your costs are huge.”
Towing, on the other hand, is a relatively cheap thing to do, but also competitive when it comes to hourly and mileage rates.
Davis said that although there is a love-hate relationship between those in his business and transport truck drivers, there is also a lack of knowledge about the difference between towing and recovery, in particular the vastly differing costs between the two.
Davis’ company is shifting into a phase where it is doing more long-haul distance towing from the US to Canada and much less local, heavy-duty recovery.
“As it becomes less and less viable, it may end up becoming more of a government job,” Davis said. “We may end up having to pay for clearing of that out of your taxes.”
Despite his belief that heavy recovery could one day be in the hands of the government and come out of the pocket of taxpayers, Davis said a lot of work has to be done on the government side to understand his business, and feels the towing industry is mismanaged.
“The problem is that this day and age, they (police) are not really qualified to manage it and they don’t want to manage it,” Davis said. “The Ministry of Transportation stays right out of the towing industry and won’t get involved.
“It’s a very difficult business to be in without proper management.”
Essentially, when an incident occurs on a B.C. highway and a towing company must be dispatched to the scene, the RCMP are tasked with calling a towing company that is on a list, making their way up and down the list to ensure all companies have a fair business opportunity. But Davis believes not all jobs are created equal, and depending on the severity of the situation, one towing company may be much better equipped to work a scene than another.
“It’s a very haphazard situation, where they will call whoever is on the list, we don’t know what kind of equipment they have, we don’t know how it’s going (to work),” Davis said.
“Our resource is mismanaged to the point where it actually affects traffic closures on the highway.”
He added that the call list system is one that has endured since the 1960s, during a time when ‘the biggest tow truck guy would beat the other guy for the job,’ which is exactly why the RCMP become involved; as a type of peacekeeping presence on the scene of an accident.
“We’re behind the times in the way we manage recovery on the highway,” he said.
Kate Mukasa, public affairs officer with B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation, said the RCMP and provincial maintenance contractors maintain a list of qualified companies that offer towing services, ranging from heavy haul to smaller tow trucks.
“Call outs by the RCMP or the maintenance contractor are based on their respective lists, and the calls are made to ensure that the size of the tow trucks are appropriate for the vehicle requiring assistance,” Mukasa said via e-mail. “Where vehicles are not presenting a risk to the public, the choice of tow truck can be left to the vehicle owner.”
Mukasa also said that the vast majority of tow truck companies are professional and do their job well.
“Tow truck companies are responsible incident responders, and they come to the scene properly equipped, with skilled and qualified tow truck operators,” Mukasa said, adding that operators must follow Workers’ Compensation Board regulations while on scene. “The Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement (CVSE) branch and police are there to deal with any issues that may arise.”
Davis, however, said police simply call either company A or company B and don’t really know what their qualifications really are, and even at times call the company that is next on the list to perform a heavy-duty recovery and they don’t even own any equipment to do the job. Davis even said he knows several senior members of the RCMP who admit the system is antiquated and would prefer not to deal with making decisions on which towing company to dispatch, as it is something they are aware they don’t do properly, but the responsibility remains on their plate.
South of the border, Davis said it’s a different story when it comes to how tow companies are dispatched, citing the Chicago area, where each company is given a specific region to work and is guaranteed the business in that area, and Florida’s Rapid Incident Scene Clearance (RISC) program as examples.
A representative from the RISC contacted Davis after seeing an episode of Highway Thru Hell and questioned why the province of B.C. uses the system it does.
“We forwarded that (RISC) to our area manager and to the Ministry of Transportation and nobody talked to us,” Davis said, adding that he has been advocating for some kind of government involvement in B.C.’s towing industry for some time now and has received no feedback on any of his inquiries.
“It seems like it’s their highway, but they don’t want to get involved with anything that goes on with it,” he said.
Davis said he is proud that Highway Thru Hell has shed a light on safety in the trucking industry. He did admit that there are some drawbacks to being on such a popular show – Highway Thru Hell is the top rated show on Discovery Channel Canada – saying some companies won’t call them for a job because they don’t want to be seen on TV in a wreck. Broadcast in 180 countries, Jamie Davis Motor Truck and Auto has signed a new contract that will see the company on the show for at least 10 years. Season four is currently being filmed. A new show, Heavy Rescue 401, will also be coming soon, and is similar to Highway Thru Hell but located in the Greater Toronto Area.
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