Ontario was the first jurisdiction to establish mandatory entry-level training standard for truck drivers. Since 2017, anyone who wants to take a Class A road test must first complete 103.5 hours of training.
The challenge is that the all-important road test doesn’t seem to be conducted in a standard way.
Complaints continue to emerge that individual examiners at Ontario Drive Test Centres apply different interpretations to the actions that driver trainees need to demonstrate.
The differences are so significant that several truck driver training schools, speaking on condition of anonymity, admit they avoid individual examiners and locations when scheduling student road tests.
“They don’t follow the marking guides,” says Naeem Cheema of the Pine Valley Driving Academy in Etobicoke, referring to the document that examiners use to decide what trainees need to illustrate. “Every examiner has its own interpretation.”
Same answers, different grades
The way an answer is delivered, or the individual steps taken to perform a technique, can be the difference between earning a licence or a failing grade.
“One examiner will say, ‘You didn’t mention the low air warning device must activate below 55 [psi].’ The other examiner will say, ‘That’s OK. You can just say the low air warning is working,’” Cheema says as an example.
Many of the discrepancies appear to be linked to the way pre-trip inspections are conducted.
Where one examiner wants to see candidates gently rock the steering wheel during a pre-trip inspection, the next is waiting to see if it’s turned fully to the left and right, Cheema says, offering another example. Where another examiner wants a door handle checked, the next wants to see trainees put their full shoulder into the door to ensure everything is secure.
At one Drive Test Centre, those taking the road test have been allowed to say they would inform an “operator” about a vehicle defect. The next will demand references to the trucking “company” or “owner”. Some examiners appear willing to describe that air pressure is above 90 psi, but trainees in other locations are expected to offer the specific reading of the air gauge.
About 10 to 15 steps like these were recently clarified, but Cheema says more still need to be done. “It takes a long time,” he adds, referring to the pace of changes introduced since 2017. “Meanwhile, lots of people lose their time and money.”
Mary Dane, government and stakeholder director for Serco Canada – the private business contracted to conduct the tests – recognized the “perceived inconsistencies” during a recent presentation to the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario (TTSAO).
“We say ‘perceived’ because in some cases it’s not an inconsistency,” she stressed.
But changes are being adopted to address other cases.
“We’ve heard about the lack of alignment between training programs and the testing administration,” she told the crowd dominated by training school representatives. “We started addressing the pass/fail rates of our driver examiners.”
Every month, a review board now looks for anomalies in the form of unusually high or low rates of passing grades, while a remedial training program has been developed for the examiners themselves.
“We’re redeveloping a commercial testing guideline. It’s been updated since the entry-level training has come into effect. But it really hasn’t been fully, I would say fully updated, and sent out to our driver examiners,” Dane said.
Who is Serco?
The contract to run the province’s vision, knowledge and road tests for all licence categories was first awarded in 2003 to Plenary Serco DES, a consortium of Plenary Group Canada, Serco DES, and CGI. The $138-million contract for the first decade was to generate an estimated $500 million in revenue. The contract was renewed in 2013 for $207 million, and is expected to generate $800 million in revenue over its 10-year term.
While the related activities are currently paused, the action was taken because of the ongoing pandemic. DriveTest Centres have been closed since March 23 on the advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, during the fight against Covid-19. A date for reopening the locations has not yet been established.
Before that occurred, Dane gave truck driving training schools their own homework assignments in a bid to address the inconsistent road tests.
“Review the curriculum that’s been provided to you. Review the training tools that you have at your hand. Call us and ask us questions. There’s a lot of issues out there where some of the instructors coming into our Drive Test Centres have certain ideas about specific Drive Test Centres,” Dane added, referring to school personnel who say they need to train students for a road test location rather than to meet a common standard.
Keeping a distance
But trainers are discouraged from raising questions with the examiners themselves.
“We really discourage the interaction between driver examiners and instructors and students. They have a job and it’s all about ethics,” Dane explained.
Lynn Northcott, a driver-trainer for Zavcor Training Academy, counters that many issues could be resolved if Drive Test allowed more interactions with the individual examiners.
“We’re human beings. I should be able to walk over to that examiner and say, ‘I have this student. He’s ready, he’s done his training,’” she said after Dane’s presentation. “I need to know what my student did in order to fix it if he failed. He [a failing student] can’t remember because he’s so nervous and mad.
“How do you want them to word it? How do you want them to do it? We all need to be on the same page,” Northcott continued. “I need to be on their page too, training wise … They’re not being consistent. One will do it one way, and one will do a different way. It can be, at some point, frustrating.”
Updated tests, more failures
Many examiners, meanwhile, are dealing with a different test protocol since the rollout of mandatory entry-level driver training.
Written exams and road tests were both updated in 2017, as regulators looked to end the practice of teaching students to memorize answers rather than truly learning the training material.
There is now a bank of more than 150 questions for the written knowledge tests, up from 88, and the questions that remain are focusing on truck-specific issues. Trainees also have to focus on three to five randomly chosen vehicle components when being tested on inspection procedures – describing what they’re looking for, the differences between major and minor defects, and how they would respond to each. Backing demonstrations must include offset backing to the left or right, or an alley-dock maneuver.
Examiners have awarded licences to a lower share of candidates since the changes were put in place, too.
Between March and June 2017, before the mandatory training regime was implemented, 62% of trainees would pass the Class A road test. That rate dropped to 52% between July and October 2017, according to statistics from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
The changes have also introduced new challenges for the Drive Test Centres themselves – contributing to a backlog in test appointments.
While a Brampton facility was once able to accommodate 10 trucks at a time, it is now limited to three to five bays because of the new backing requirements. Serco is looking “outside the organization” to build on that capacity, Dane said.
Even test durations are being reviewed, as officials consider whether returning candidates need to repeat procedures that were successfully demonstrated during a test that resulted in a failing grade.
Meanwhile, Serco is planning a 50% increase in the number of DE4 examiners who conduct tests for commercial licences. “We’re going to have an over-abundance of DE4s out there,” Dane said.
Commercial examiners must hold a valid commercial class of licence and have at least four years of driving experience. Their training includes three levels of classroom and practical instruction, job shadowing, and a set number of road tests.
“All drivers are evaluated to the same criteria in all areas across the [province] regardless of the location in which the test is completed,” said MTO spokeswoman Kristine Bunker. “While the geographic reality of Ontario means that testing at each centre might be conducted under different conditions, all applicants are still required to demonstrate that they can safely operate a motor vehicle.”
Still, Cheema believes many issues can be linked to Serco’s internal training process for examiners, and argues that such training should be delivered by a third party.
“They’re passing on their own knowledge to follow each other,” he said. “They should hire people that have experience, people who understand the [Ontario Highway Traffic Act], people who understand the road.”
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