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GATINEAU, Que. - One day before heading south in his company rig, Daniel Martineau opened a letter from the Societe de l'assurance automobile du Quebec (SAAQ).To his astonishment, it advised him that ...

GATINEAU, Que. – One day before heading south in his company rig, Daniel Martineau opened a letter from the Societe de l’assurance automobile du Quebec (SAAQ).To his astonishment, it advised him that his Class 1 licence was only valid in Canada.

“I was ready to leave for the US on March 5. If I had left before that letter arrived, I would have gotten into shit. My driver’s abstract shows that I can’t drive anymore in the US,” says Martineau. Over the next two weeks he scrambled, unsuccessfully, to figure out how this had dropped on his head, while pulling domestic loads to keep some cash coming in.

Then another letter arrived from le Service de l’evaluation medicale, the same branch of the SAAQ that prepared his letter, informing his wife Rita Gagnon that her Class 1 for the US was also worthless because of a hearing problem.

As far as Martineau could gather after two weeks of burning up the phone lines, the US and Quebec cooked up this restriction sometime in early February. “I don’t know why they came out with this rule now. I would like to find out why, after 10 years – Boom!”

In actuality, the seeds of Martineau’s dismay were sown in 1998 at the beginning of his second career as a long-haul trucker, after leaving his job as director of warehousing for Loeb.

His pre-licence medical had uncovered a problem with his binocular vision. It could have disqualified him immediately from getting his Class 1, but SAAQ granted it anyway, using its pouvoir discretionnaire (discretionary power). The only restriction was that he could not drive taxis, buses or ambulances.

This seemed harmless, but what escaped Martineau’s attention for a decade is that under a 1999 Canada/US Medical Reciprocity Agreement, and apparently even before that, his Class 1 had never extended to driving tractor-trailers in the US. Before the Reciprocity Agreement was signed, truckers had to carry separate medical fitness cards. But recognizing that their medical standards for commercial drivers were nearly identical, the two countries agreed to recognize the commercial driver’s licence as proof of medical fitness to drive south or north of the border.

However, according to an Ontario Trucking Association document, the agreement forbade Canadians who had “insulin-dependant diabetess, had monocular vision, were hearing impaired or were epileptic on anticonvulsive medication” from driving in the States.

A slightly different list of medical conditions in an SAAQ brochure does not explicitly mention monocular vision, but does include any Class 1, 2, 3 or 4B licence granted under its discretionary power.

So far so bad. A goal under the reciprocal agreement had been to flag disqualifying medical conditions with a Code W (Condition W in Quebec), a universal indicator that was to appear on driver’s licences. But according to Audrey Henderson, director of programs with the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA), “Code W was put into abeyance while the US finishes looking at its medical processes. As far as I know, the US is still reviewing and developing that.”

In fact, says SAAQ, there was a delay in applying the reciprocal agreement, period. Somehow or other, drivers like Martineau did not pick up the fact that they had no licence to drive in the US. One SAAQ official did admit, however, that early SAAQ letters were so garbled that it finally solicited the help of school children to judge their comprehensibility.

In 2006 SAAQ began a push to work on the agreement. It mailed letters to over 7,500 heavy truck owners and Class 1, 2, 3 and 4B licence holders, advising them of conditions of the reciprocity agreement. But only on Feb. 25, 2008 was the SAAQ computer system able to begin sending letters to drivers advising them of their Condition W status. One stick in the eye in this tale, which cost Martineau and his wife $3,600 in income by Mar. 21, is that what counts as inadequate monocular vision, or distant binocular acuity, or microstrabismus, whatever, reportedly varies between Quebec, CCMTA and the US Federal Highway Safety Administration.

“The US is in the process of renewing its medical tests, as is Quebec. We are trying to harmonize as much as possible the tests between Quebec and the US and Quebec and the rest of Canada,” explains SAAQ’s Sylvie Boulanger.

The kicker is that were Martineau a US resident, he might qualify for his Class 1. But the only short-term hope for this trucking couple was that the new medicals they took in March will demonstrate that the pouvoir discretionnaire can be removed, letting them head south again. “This,” says Boulanger, “is a problem we are examining in order not to penalize Quebec drivers who want to drive in the US.”

And as luck would have it, this story has a happy ending. Just as Truck News was heading to press, Martineau called to confirm the March medicals taken by he and his wife have vindicated them.

The pouvoir discretionnaire was indeed removed, and both of their abilities to run into the US were restored.

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