Alberta has relaxed safety requirements for newly licensed semi-truck drivers and bus operators, a move that will allow hundreds of drivers to bypass rigorous training and testing standards implemented after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
The province’s United Conservative government will allow some new truckers and bus drivers who were exempt from Alberta’s new training program for rookie operators to keep their licences without having to, eventually, pass stricter road and knowledge tests, if they have clean driving records. The change applies to farm employees who recently obtained Class 1 licences to drive transport trucks for agricultural purposes and new Class 2 drivers exclusively operating school buses. It also applies to anyone who received either category of licence in the six months before the new rules took effect in March.
The changes come amid a larger debate about the trucking industry and safety standards, particularly as it relates to new commercial-truck drivers. A Globe and Mail investigation published Oct. 5 revealed how some companies are using untrained temporary foreign workers as drivers, putting lives at risk across the country.
The Globe reported in September that Alberta’s government was considering relaxing requirements for truckers in the agricultural industry, which argues that its drivers are travelling comparably short distances and should not be subject to the same rules as commercial long-haul operators.
Alberta was among several provinces that tightened its training and licensing requirements following the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, which killed 16 people in April, 2018. The new system significantly expanded the amount of classroom and practical training for new drivers piloting semis and buses, added higher fees and introduced stricter written and road tests.
Initially, prospective Class 1 drivers operating semis exclusively for farming purposes and new Class 2 licencees driving only school buses were given training exemptions. They were permitted to obtain a licence under the old testing and licensing system but would have been required to pass the updated road and knowledge tests – farmers by March, 2021, and school bus drivers by July, 2020
But the government changed those requirements, without a formal announcement, last month. Drivers with Class 1 and Class 2 licences who received farming or school-bus exemptions will be eligible to keep their commercial licences without taking the enhanced safety tests. Instead, Alberta will evaluate driving records and waive tests for drivers who regulators deem safe; after that, the drivers would have full commercial licences that would not be restricted to farming or school-bus driving.
The same procedure applies to all Class 1 and Class 2 drivers who obtained licences after the mandatory entry-level training program was announced Oct. 11, 2018, and before it took effect in 2019.
Drivers who received Class 1 or Class 2 licences prior to Oct. 11, 2018, remain grandfathered.
The provincial Transportation Ministry said it mailed out letters in September informing new drivers about the changes and what they need to do next. The department did not say how new farm or school-bus drivers will be evaluated in the future. It is unclear how much of the drivers’ history will be evaluated, and the government did not respond to this question.
Ric McIver, Alberta’s Minister of Transportation, said the province made the changes to address a shortage of driving examiners, which he blamed on the previous NDP government’s decision to end privatized testing. There is a risk the backlog could stymie drivers who skipped the mandatory training but want to stay on the road after their extension expires.
“We are so far behind on drivers’ tests that we weren’t even sure whether we’d be able to deliver these tests to these people before the time was up for them to lose their licence," he said in an interview. “We had to do something.”
The agriculture industry and school-bus business, Mr. McIver said, are “a couple of segments of the economy that really needed to have more drivers.”
Mr. McIver said he’s comfortable with the change because the drivers who may now be exempt from taking the enhanced tests have the same amount of training as operators who received licences before the new testing and training standards kicked in.
“The same licences that have been operating mostly safely for the last 30, 40 years is the standard that they are at," he said.
“Whether there should be some separate standards for people that are just taking crops off the field a short distance, we don’t know," Mr. McIver said.
Saskatchewan modified training standards for semi drivers operating on farms, but the exemptions will be phased out in 2021. Manitoba’s agricultural exemption expires next September, and any changes require regulatory amendments. Ontario was the only province with mandatory training standards prior to the Broncos’ crash. All provinces have pledged to introduce mandatory entry-level training by 2020.