Ulch wants alcohol interlocks in all trucks

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Ian Parsons demonstrates the step he needs to take before starting the truck, as part of a voluntary pilot project introduced by Ulch Transport.

ST. MARYS, Ont. – Ian Parsons says he has never driven while drunk. There’s no DUI on his record, and he’s a firm believer in Ontario’s zero-tolerance policy around commercial vehicles and alcohol. If someone has been drinking, he doesn’t want them anywhere near a highway.

Before he can start his truck, though, the Ulch Transport driver needs to blow into an ignition interlock device — the type that courts usually order for those who run afoul of drinking and driving rules.

It’s part of a voluntary pilot project being run by the fleet from St. Marys, Ont., as it makes the case to require interlocks on all trucks, all the time.

The Alcolock devices offers the all clear.

The idea came to fleet vice-president Joe Wilhelm three years ago after news reports of several alcohol-related truck collisions. First, a truck with its raised dump body hit the Burlington Skyway near Hamilton. A few months later, another drunk driver was involved in a collision near London. Then a local company had a driver arrested for climbing behind the wheel while impaired.

“Drivers driving commercial vehicles while impaired is our industry’s dirty little secret,” he suggests.

Wilhelm isn’t talking about someone drinking during their shift, but the drivers who might lift a bottle the night before. “They don’t always wait 12 hours bottle to throttle,” he says. “Sleep or coffee or a cold shower doesn’t sober you up.” With his drivers beginning their days at 4 a.m., he wants to ensure that blood alcohol content is at an absolute zero before the wheels turn.

As a whole, cases of drinking and driving are down in the province. Alcohol was reported as a factor in 2% of fatal truck collisions involving heavy trucks in 2014, according to the most recent Road Safety Report. Drinking and driving fatalities overall dropped 69% between 1995 and 2014.

Wilhelm still thinks one is too many.

As a cross-border operation, Ulch Transport introduced testing for alcohol and drugs years ago, and the related policy applies to domestic and international drivers alike. The problem, says Ulch president Bob Wilhelm, is that the programs are not likely to catch those who have an occasional drink the night before work.

“It’s not a driver who necessarily does this every day. It might be somebody who played ball the night before,” he says. “No drug and alcohol testing is going to catch that.”

These devices can catch that, and they have. The first failed test was recorded just weeks after the program began. When the vice-president reached the fleet yard, one of the Ulch trucks was still parked at 7 a.m. The driver said he had stopped drinking at 9:30 p.m. the night before. Even though he was legally fit to drive a car, zero tolerance is zero tolerance for the truck.

None of the drivers who tested positive have been disciplined. Their devices don’t indicate the level of impairment, or even suggest if someone was drinking on the job. But the equipment can determine fitness for duty.

There has been a learning process around using the Alcolock devices during the pilot study. The fleet had to order extra breathing straws for trucks that were used by more than one driver. Those behind the wheel also had to be trained in how to use the equipment. Parsons remembers one time that he couldn’t get the device to give him the all clear, simply because he wasn’t blowing with the right amount of pressure.

So far, four trucks have been equipped, with a full-service lease that costs about $89 per month. “The cost of a good night’s sleep,” Joe Wilhelm says. “It’s really peanuts.”

Despite the successes, the fleet operators are frustrated that nobody seems willing to join in their call. Not insurers, provincial politicians, or federal politicians. Shippers and other fleets offer congratulations, the hearty “attaboys”, but nobody else seems willing to pick up the cause.

“Mine is not a moral stance against drinking. Mine is a moral stance against drinking and driving,” the younger Wilhelm says. “But I don’t want to spent that $60,000 [to equip the entire fleet] if I’m the only one.”

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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