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Car-truck collisions could be sharply reduced if truck drivers' working conditions were improved

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View from interior of transport truck. Image: AILAFM/Flickr

Bridget Driscoll is hardly a household name in Canada. I doubt that few besides me have ever heard of her.

She has the dubious distinction of being the first person in the world to be killed by an automobile.

It happened in London on August 17, 1896, when the 44-year-old woman and her teenaged daughter were on their way to see a dancing performance on the grounds of the Crystal Palace.

While they were strolling along the terrace, she was struck by a motorcar. It was one of the first such vehicles to be constructed anywhere, and the company was introducing it by offering free demonstration rides to the public. The car was moving at only four miles an hour when it struck Driscoll, but the impact was still fatal.

Later, at the inquest, the coroner delivered a verdict of accidental death, but added a stern if ironic warning: "This tragedy must never be allowed to happen again."

What has happened, of course, is that an estimated 1.5 million people are being killed each year in car crashes -- nearly two every minute -- and as many as 3 million more are seriously injured.

By 2022, motor vehicle accidents are predicted to become the third leading cause of death or crippling injury.

The most grievous aspect of such horrific figures is that most of these crashes could have been prevented.

Car carnage in Canada

Nearly 2,000 Canadians are killed every year and another 10,000 seriously injured in highway crashes, most of them involving collisions between cars and heavy trucks -- those with a gross vehicle weight greater than 12,000 pounds.

Even on a per-distance-travelled basis, large trucks have a fatality rate double the rate for all other vehicles.

So the unfortunate tendency is to blame the truck drivers rather than the stressful, sleep-deprived, underpaid conditions under which they are forced to drive.

With 90 per cent of all consumer products and perishables now being shipped by truck, the number of large trucks required for these massive deliveries has surged from 740,000 a decade ago to more than 1,200,000 today. As a result, passenger vehicles have to share more congested highways with more big trucks, in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day and night.

The pressing need to improve road safety to account for these increasingly arduous driving conditions should have been glaringly obvious to our federal and provincial governments, but clearly was not.

Following are the main strains and stresses that truck drivers are consequently forced to endure:

Hours of service

Although the federal government has put a limit on long-distance truckers' driving time -- a maximum of 14 hours a day -- many are ordered by company dispatchers to keep driving longer so as to meet tight delivery schedules. This unlawful pressure deprives them of adequate rest, and often occurs during the busiest traffic time and worst weather conditions.

One of the obvious signs of this reduction of drivers' rest time has been the closure of many of the highway truck stops that used to cater to the needs of exhausted drivers.

Poor training

Many truck drivers -- especially the younger ones -- have not been properly trained to drive such huge vehicles safely on our increasingly traffic-jammed highways. Adequate truck driver training is not mandatory in Canada, as it is in other advanced countries.

Some trucking companies do have their drivers provided with training by private training schools, but many such schools are fly-by-night operations that teach applicants as little as possible -- barely enough for them to pass the basic Class A-1 driving test required by law. Many thousands of new drivers, therefore, are ill equipped for the onerous task of driving large tractor-trailers.

Inadequate pay

Taking inflation into account, truck drivers today are not being paid much more than they were 40 years ago -- an average of only $44,000 a year. There are three reasons for this abominably low wage.

1. Unlike their counterparts in other advanced countries, truck drivers in Canada don't have a union to represent and negotiate for them. Even truckers in the United States, though they lack a union, do have a strong "association" that protects and promotes their interests.

2. Canadian truck drivers are not officially recognized as having a skilled trade, as they are in other countries. While unionized workers in the building trades are well paid on the basis of their acknowledged skills, Canada's truck drivers are treated as common labourers, and paid as such.

3. This failure to regard truck drivers as professionals, and compensate them accordingly, is a direct result of government neglect to insist that drivers attain a high level of proficiency before they are given a truck-driving licence. It's a dangerous deficiency that ensures the carnage on our highways will persist and likely worsen.

Older drivers retiring early

Largely because of these onerous working conditions, thousands of older and experienced drivers have retired early, or plan to do so soon. With more than 90 per cent of all consumer products and perishables now being shipped by truck, demand for replacement drivers is intensifying.

Recruiting such additional drivers, however, is now far from easy, given the low pay and strenuous -- often perilous -- working conditions. There's no reason for high school graduates to regard trucking as an attractive occupation. Why take an arduous job that would pay them not much more than would a fast food restaurant? A fast food server can go home every night and sleep soundly in his own bed. A young, poorly trained truck driver, on the other hand, has to deliver multi-million-dollar cargos over traffic-jammed highways while denied adequate training, rest and compensation. Often compelled, as well, to keep driving at night through difficult and dangerous weather.

If he were then to collide with a car or be involved in a multiple vehicle crash -- as many unfortunately are -- he would likely be blamed for consequent casualties and damages. The company that fails to give him proper rest and training, and the governments that fail to improve his safety and atrocious working conditions are never exposed as the real culprits.

Other modes of transport

Much better regulatory and preventive safety measures have been inaugurated for the employees of the airline, railway, and marine industries, even though 95 per cent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries in Canada occur on our roads and highways.

If the appalling number of preventable fatalities and injuries incurred on Canada's thoroughfares were to be incurred proportionately by the airline industry, the federal Transport Department would be fervently committed to their reduction.

A plane crash, even with few casualties or even a near crash, garners front-page headlines and coverage that can last for weeks. But a multi-vehicle highway crash, though it may kill or maim a dozen or more, makes TV and tabloid news for a few days and then is forgotten, to be followed a few weeks later by the next big pileup on the 401.

The horrendous collision in Saskatchewan of a truck with the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team was a stark exception to the usual tepid coverage of road crashes by the media. Largely because the victims were notable hockey players or team staff, this crash made the news for a long time, and understandably so.

But the 1,900 other Canadians who were killed in car crashes the same year, and the 10,000 or more injured, did not get anywhere near the same attention by the media, and certainly not by the provincial and federal governments.

It's as if our politicians and media pundits have become inured to the slaughter on our streets and highways. It's as if they now consider the frequency and lethality of such "accidents" to be unavoidable, even normal, and thus not anything that calls for effectual preventive measures. While the few but highly publicized airline and rail crashes impel the federal government to strive for improved air and rail safety, the far more numerous fatalities and injuries sustained from highway crashes meet with token tut-tuts, if not outright indifference. 

Governments don't collaborate

Highway safety is a joint federal-provincial responsibility, but little or no effort is being made to develop a strong cooperative relationship. This failure is compounded by the jurisdictional division that exists between them. Each government can and does have different traffic rules and regulations, different policies and priorities, and different levels of enforcement.

The clearly urgent need for standardized transportation laws and policies across the country is ignored. This is arguably because our governments feel obliged to comply with the wishes of the large influential trucking fleet owners (who seem content with the status quo) rather than the needs of beleaguered and voiceless truck drivers.  

How many of the thousands of highway deaths and injuries that occur can be attributed to the callous mistreatment of the nation's truck drivers? How much of this carnage can be attributed to the drivers' skimpy training, to rest and food deprivation, to stressful driving conditions, to the excessive hours of work, to the outrageously meager pay, and to their lack of a union to represent and bargain for them?

These pertinent questions are never going to be satisfactorily answered as long as ongoing road transport aggravations are allowed to continue. Certainly there will be no improvement unless truck drivers are sufficiently trained, fairly paid, with essential rest and meal breaks, with freedom to decide the safe limits of their work schedule, with much improved government help and protection, and, ideally, with an organization to represent and speak for them.

Governments that keep failing to implement such urgently needed reforms cannot wash their hands of the tragic consequences, of which the Humboldt tragedy in Saskatchewan was but the most horrendous and most publicized.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: AILAFM/Flickr

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