TORONTO, Ont. – The proposal to end the discrimination against Ontario senior truck drivers has been welcomed by trucking companies and drivers alike.
Ontario is the only province that mandates annual road tests for Class A drivers when they reach 65 years of age.
Although the proposed amendments will probably not go into effect until 2013, they can’t happen soon enough for those drivers reaching that threshold. The required annual road tests for senior tractor-trailer drivers, in effect since 1984, have long been a bone of contention. Overwhelmingly, retested drivers reported a sense that the province’s Drive Test examiners were especially strict with them – as though a secret directive had gone out to “get tough” with this group.
At 68 years of age, Norm Hurdle of Cambridge has had several encounters with retesting. One time he was given a demerit for not checking to see if the air lines were cracked, another time for not checking the fifth wheel jaws. “I just laugh at them,” he says. “There’s always some problem. I’ve driven for 50 years, millions of miles, and never had an accident. And I deliver 50 tonnes of steel in Toronto every day. They’re going to tell me how to drive?”
Brian Willoughby of South Baymouth (three million miles accident-free) fought a long battle to have his licence reinstated.
After he failed his initial retest, he continued working and was caught driving without an A/Z. He questions the competence of some of the examiners. “The guy I had didn’t know a fifth wheel plate from a king pin. And that’s not all he didn’t know.”
Sixty-eight-year-old John Ford was a 20-year career driver for Heinz Foods until he retired. He tried several times to pass the road test in Windsor and Chatham, Ont., but was always stymied. One time he was failed for proceeding up the ramp on Windsor’s E.C. Row Expressway even though a car had just turned onto the ramp while he was halfway up. Another examiner, this one in Chatham, told him he didn’t check his mirrors frequently enough.
Ford, who was downgraded to a D/Z licence, has been driving dump trucks recently. But he’s less enthusiastic about driving truck these days, and losing his A licence has made him somewhat bitter.
“I can see them doing this for someone who has a bad driving record,” he says. “But I think this is degrading to a 65-year-old driver who has been driving for 20 years with a perfect record.”
Ford thinks the arbitrariness of the testing is what was throwing drivers a curveball. One examiner penalized him for swinging too wide during a turn, while another was critical when he cut too close to a curb. He suggests that experienced drivers are second-guessing their abilities and trying to give the examiners (few, if any, are licensed A/Z drivers) what they think they want.
Stories like these are common. Practical road test aside, the Class A licence renewal process presented other burdensome aspects for the province’s senior tractor-trailer drivers. Not only were they required to pass the road test, they also had to complete a written test on the rules of the road, another written and practical air brake examination, and submit a yearly medical.
The proposed changes mean that all of the above will be thrown out, with the exception of the yearly medical which will remain in place for commercial A/Z drivers over 65. Only those drivers that have accumulated three or more demerit points, or have been involved in an at-fault collision, will be required to take the road test and air brake examination.
Organizations like the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) have lobbied hard to achieve these changes. A glimmer of hope occurred in 2009 when the MTO permitted drivers to use automatic transmissions during road tests.
Perhaps the lobbyists have finally found the ear of Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli, who has only had that portfolio since October 2011. Another factor could be that the Ontario government is seeking to stay in lock step with the Harper government, which has announced plans to raise the age of retirement to 67 years.
More likely, the changing demographics and pending driver shortage has had more of an influence on the minister. The Ontario government’s severe approach was no doubt hurting the provincial economy. Anecdotally, I heard about a driver who had gone back to Nova Scotia and was working there because of the unfairness of the yearly retests. I was told about another senior driver who gets his licence renewed in Quebec but returns to Ontario to work.
But there can be little doubt that the MTO’s onerous protocol has thinned the ranks of commercial Class A drivers. The ministry estimates that about 9,100 Class A, B and C drivers are downgraded to a Class D licence annually for failing to submit a medical. A more surprising statistic indicates how few seniors have bothered to keep their A/Z tickets. In 2010, 184,777 Ontarians held Class A/Z licences, of which only 2,224 were over the age of 65. This is an astoundingly small number considering the number of baby boomer drivers on the cusp of retirement.
Tom Neifer, the manager of CF Warehouse in Wheatley, Ont., thinks the mandatory retesting was discriminatory and unnecessary.
“These new rules are a step in the right direction. We use a lot of older drivers, guys that are retired but still want to work. And these are the best drivers. You never have to worry about them. These are the most reliable drivers, good with customers, and excellent on the equipment,” he says.
“When it came time to renew their licences, it seems they were always getting jacked around. For about six to eight weeks these guys would have to go through hoops,” Neifer adds. “This all seems to have started with privatization (DriveTest is a private company that administers driver examinations under contract to the MTO). There was no factual backup for the need to retest. Seniors just don’t seem to have the same political clout as everyone else.”
For Mark Seymour, president and CEO of Kriska Transportation of Prescott, Ont., the yearly retesting of his senior drivers is more of a nuisance than anything else. He’s happy to lend his company drivers a tractor and trailer for the examination, but he says it’s still disruptive.
“We have several senior drivers in this position. But a year goes by quickly. It breaks up their work week and means a loss of revenue for them as well as an expense for the examination fee,” he says.
According to Seymour, some senior drivers haven’t thought through what they will do during retirement and still need a full-time job. Others have been driving since they were 16 and this is what they like to do.
“I like to think these changes came about because of lobbying by the OTA,” he says. “If you make enough noise with enough support and have done the background research, you can affect change. I also like the fact that there’s a mechanism to red flag bad drivers.”
But will the thousands of drivers who have given up their A/Z licence in the last few years come back? The jury’s still out, but some will be anxious to get back on the road and those turning 65 will welcome these changes as an opportunity to keep working. And employers will be glad to have them back.
“We’ve lost a lot of highly-skilled drivers because of this mandatory retesting,” says Ross Mackie, patriarch of Mackie Moving Systems of Oshawa, Ont. “I hope some of them will reconsider and come back and work for us,” he says.