Failing grades

by Fred Nix

OTTAWA, Ont. – Canada’s provincial and territorial governments have all pledged to develop safety ratings for the operators of commercial trucks and buses. The problem is, they have once again missed a deadline for doing this, and they have yet to develop consistent rating procedures.

When Canada began deregulating trucking (entry regulations) in the 1980s, the fear was that – if just anyone were allowed to operate a truck – the resulting intense competition would mean highway safety would deteriorate. Cash-strapped operators would skimp on maintenance, make drivers work long hours and cut corners in an attempt to stay in business.

As a result, governments agreed in 1986 to a new set of safety rules known as the National Safety Code. Standard 14 of the Code was added afterwards, and it requires provincial and territorial governments implement safety-rating procedures.

In essence, a safety rating is much like a report card, with a passing grade of “Satisfactory” or even “Satisfactory Audited” if a carrier has been subjected to a facility audit and come out clean. A facility audit occurs when an inspector checks a carrier’s management procedures to see that all the safety regulations are being followed.

A warning on such a report card is a rating of “Conditional” (it’s akin to telling a motor carrier, “Smarten up or else …”) and a failing grade is deemed as “Unsatisfactory.” At the point of an Unsatisfactory rating, the right to operate a commercial vehicle is revoked or procedures such as show-cause hearings are begun.

Evidence from the United States, where the U.S Department of Transportation has been rating carriers for years, shows that motor carriers under a safety-rating regime do improve their safety performance. The ultimate result is fewer collisions.

Regardless, such a rating system will not be in place in Canada this December, and this isn’t the first time a deadline has been missed. Rating procedures were originally supposed to be in place by January 1997.

In some provinces the problem is that governments have not committed enough resources to ensure that they have a workable rating system. It is also probably true, however, that a safety-rating process is more difficult to develop than officials originally thought.

Ratings are based on a combination of on-road performance measures (road-related convictions, inspection results and collisions) and facility audit results. But the exact combination of these measures varies from one jurisdiction to another.

Another concern raised in the report is that emerging rating procedures are not consistent. This is odd given that the safety-rating standard itself lists “consistency” as a basic principle and defines it as a process whereby carriers with similar performance receive similar ratings.

To test how provinces and territories are doing, the report documents the fate of a hypothetical motor carrier starting business in January 2000 and, for three years thereafter, experiencing a series of convictions, inspections and collisions. All jurisdictions were asked to subject this carrier to their rating procedures. Nine were able to do so, but even in these nine cases, some work is on the basis of partially complete or anticipated rating procedures. In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario, the carrier is rated Conditional within five months of starting business. In Newfoundland, P.E.I., Quebec and Saskatchewan, a Conditional rating is given in the second year of operation. In Manitoba, the rating procedures bump the carrier to a position where two rating levels-from Satisfactory-Unaudited to Unsatisfactory-may be considered in one move in Year 3. In Alberta, the rating has not been downgraded to Conditional at the end of the three years.

So much for consistency.

Another test consisted of a series of events repeated often enough to have a carrier reach the point where an enforcement agency would downgrade the rating to Conditional. (An example is shown in the chart on pg. 24.) In this test, it is assumed that a fictional carrier has 10 tractor-trailers or buses, 10 company drivers and all their driving is within the jurisdictional borders. Vehicles are then subjected to an unlimited number of roadside inspections and, in every case, one out-of-service defect is found. A charge is laid for operating a vehicle with brakes out of adjustment, and there’s a resulting conviction. The question is, how many inspections does it take to have the carrier rated Conditional? It is assumed that, if a facility audit is conducted, the carrier passes the audit.

As the chart to the right shows, there is a large difference in how a motor carrier would be rated in one province compared to another. The strictest enforcer is Quebec, where a bus operator could be rated Conditional after three inspections with out-of-service defects. A trucker in Quebec could be rated Conditional after five inspections. The most lenient enforcer appears to be Ontario, where a tractor-trailer fleet would need 23 inspections with out-of-service defects before it would be rated Conditional. However, given the yellow area, the most lenient enforcer may actually be Newfoundland.

The conclusion of which jurisdiction is the strictest and which is the most lenient enforcer jumps around from one test to another. In particular, once collisions are added into the mix, Ontario becomes one of the strictest regimes.

The key component of a report discussed at a recent meeting of a project group of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators was a plan to make safety-rating procedures more consistent over the next four years. The first step is to insist that those provinces and territories implementing safety-rating procedures with major deviations from the agreed-to standard mend their ways. Either that or everyone has to agree to re-write the standard. As it now exists, the standard says that carriers will be rated on the basis of their base plate. Quebec and Ontario are not doing this. They rate everyone operating within their borders.

As another example, the National Safety Code defines a commercial truck as one with a registered weight of more than 4,500 kg. But the Prairie provinces, particularly Alberta, don’t follow this definition and, as a result, a great number of commercial vehicles fall outside the safety-rating procedures.

Now it’s a matter of waiting to see what the provinces will do to make ratings a reality. n

– Fred Nix is the author of a recently completed study on safety ratings undertaken for a project group of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators. The group met in Toronto on Sept. 21 and 22 to consider his recommendations.

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