Fresh grist

by Frank Condron

SHELBURNE, Ont. – Everyone involved in trucking is aware of the current problem facing the industry with regard to barely-regulated truck-driver training schools in Ontario.

As anyone who is unlucky enough to have first-hand experience with a “fly-by-night” school can attest, the need for some kind of standards becomes more critical with every passing day.

One man who could serve as the poster boy for improved truck training school standards is Alan Hayden. Hayden, who lives with his wife in Shelburne, Ont., received his A-license only last month and is now working for Co-op Air Express in Malton, Ont. Getting there was no easy task, though, thanks to a less-than-helpful training school. A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Hayden grew up riding around the picturesque countryside with his truck-driving father. Ever since he can remember, Hayden says he has wanted to drive the big rigs.

“I can still remember smelling the diesel fumes,” he recalls. “I loved it.”

His family first moved to Canada when he was a teenager, but returned to Belfast a few years later. While living there, Hayden earned his way doing a variety of jobs but eventually returned to Canada and got a job at Cott Beverages, where he worked for eight years.

“I was anxious to get going,” Hayden says. “So I picked-up the paper and started looking for courses in there. I found one and called the office. This guy answered and told me he could teach me to pass the test in a few weeks for around $3,000. That was what I wanted to hear, so I went with it.”

It cost Hayden $40 for the initial meeting, which took place in the instructor’s truck in an industrial section of Oakville, Ont. The instructor insisted on knowing how much Hayden currently made, then-with that detail out of the way-went on to tell him he could take his test within six weeks.

All Hayden had to do was make his appointments and bring $138 in cash each time. For the first lesson, he was told to bring an extra $138 as a security deposit.

The first few lessons seemed normal to Hayden, although he began to suspect his instructor had no office and no secretary despite what he said. The third week in, Hayden was forced to cancel a lesson due to an illness in his family.

“He told me it was okay on the phone,” says Hayden. “But when I showed up for the next lesson, he demanded an extra $138 for the missed lesson. I figured, okay, I’m making progress. I’ll just keep going and work it out later. But that was just the beginning.”

Another time, Hayden showed up and spent the entire two-hour lesson sitting in the cab talking with the instructor about all kinds of things, very little of which had to do with driving a truck. When the time was up, the instructor demanded his money, saying Hayden “got experience” out of the talk.

When Hayden refused to pay, the instructor said he wouldn’t let him take his test. Over $2,000 in at that point, Hayden felt he was too close to the end to quit.

Bob Pratt is the manager of Markel Professional Transport Training in Guelph, Ont., and he shakes his head when he hears Hayden’s horror story.

“That guy is smart,” Pratt says of the shady school operator. “He has no in-class instruction. There are no other students there, so no one can say he wasn’t training the driver. The truck is his office.”

Hayden says the instructor was also evasive about how many lessons he would need and when he could expect to take his test.

Pratt says that is a major indication that the training school may be less than legit.

“We have a set course: it costs $4,500 and it involves 180 hours – nine hours a day – over four weeks leading to a diploma,” Pratt explains. “Everyone knows that before they start. They also know they are going to spend the first week in the classroom, the second week out on our range, and the third and fourth weeks out on the road.”

As the lessons progressed, the instructor became more and more hostile, shouting at Hayden, arguing with him and belittling him as he drove. Hayden almost quit numerous times, he says, but felt his skills were improving and just had a few more weeks to endure before his test.

After six weeks had passed, Hayden started asking about his test. He felt he was ready, but the instructor became “super-critical,” making him stop in traffic and get out of the truck.

“One time, he dynamited the truck in the middle of an intersection,” Hayden says.

The instructor told him again and again that he would not pass the test. He also took to “whacking” Hayden on the back and chest when he was in the midst of traffic.

“That’s a definite no-no,” says Pratt. “Not only is it unprofessional, it creates an unsafe situation for everybody on the road. How can you send a professional driver out on the road when you don’t treat them in a professional manner when they are being trained?”

Hayden says he knew of one other student, a recent immigrant from Somalia, who spent several weeks with his instructor only to get dropped for making a single small mistake. Pratt says the norm among reputable schools is to refund the student’s money if they decide, for one reason or another, that truck driving isn’t for them part way through the course.

“If we don’t’ screen them out before they start, we usually identify people who shouldn’t be in the course in the first or second week,” adds Pratt.

According to Hayden, the questionable instructor also had a policy of fining his students for running up on curbs or even hitting the yellow line when turning corners (something Pratt says is ridiculous). On one occasion, he demanded a $250 fine from Hayden and threatened to withhold the truck from him for his test if he didn’t pay. Hayden was already well past the $3,500 he had planned to spend, but he just couldn’t buckle under again.

“He really had me,” Hayden says. “I couldn’t afford to walk away and start again for another $3,000 or $4,000 somewhere else, but I couldn’t afford to keep paying and paying either. I phoned him and I really thought he would back down in the end but no, he dropped me right there. He had a real ‘screw-you’ attitude about my test.”

So Hayden had a date for his test, Dec. 4, but no truck to take it in. A friend ended up lending Hayden a truck, and Wayne Campbell, president of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario, arranged for him to borrow a trailer for his test. Contrary to his instructor’s predictions, Hayden passed.

As for the suspect “school,” messages left on its answering machine by Truck News in the process of writing this story went unreturned. n

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