The Alberta government has reversed plans to make it easier for agricultural truckers and school-bus drivers to obtain and retain their permits after three weeks of public outcry.
The United Conservative Party was considering creating a separate safety standard for new semi drivers operating in the agriculture sector, which The Globe and Mail first reported in September. In the meantime, thousands of new drivers were also set to receive permanent exemptions from the new testing.
The changes prompted protests from families tied to the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, which killed 16 people last year. They wrote letters to the province and on Wednesday appeared with the Opposition New Democrats to urge the government to reconsider.
Ric McIver, the Transportation Minister, said in the legislature Wednesday that he would listen to the families, but was not ready to make any policy announcements or promises.
The government abruptly backed off Friday. Mark Jacka, Mr. McIver’s chief of staff, said the province is no longer considering creating a separate training curriculum for people wanting Class 1 licences for farm purposes or Class 2 licences for school buses.
“The strict training is here to stay,” Mr. Jacka said in an interview.
The government also nixed plans tied to testing waivers. Alberta originally allowed new Class 1 drivers operating on farms and new Class 2 drivers piloting school buses to skip the mandatory training programs, but required them to pass tougher road and knowledge tests by Nov. 30, 2020, and July 31, 2020, respectively. The UCP in September changed this policy, saying it would allow drivers who obtained their Class 1 or Class 2 licences under the farm and school programs to keep their permits so long as they had clean driving records. On Friday, Mr. Jacka said the government will no longer give out waivers. Instead, drivers in these categories will, indeed, need to eventually pass tests based on the mandatory safety courses.
The UCP government also revised its own changes related to Class 1 and Class 2 drivers who received permits between Oct. 11, 2018, and March 1, 2019 – after the new training rules were announced but before they took effect.
Originally, these people were required to eventually pass road and knowledge tests based on the higher safety standards to stay certified. Both the previous and current governments made that a requirement. In September, however, the government changed the rules and said people who received licences in this six-month window were eligible for testing waivers if they had clean records. Roughly 6,800 people fall into this category, dubbed “transition drivers.”
Mr. McIver, the Transport Minister, announced the backtrack on social media. He had met with some family members related to some of the Humboldt Broncos victims, as well as a woman whose husband was killed in a trucking collision, this week.
“Following our conversation with families, we’ve decided that transition drivers will be placed on [two years] probation, in addition to already required clean driving record. If they receive an infraction of any kind within their probation, they’ll be required to retest under” the mandatory training program, Mr. McIver said on Twitter.
The government has spent the last three weeks arguing the softer rules were appropriate because these drivers had still passed the old standard and that there was a backlog of people wanting to take driver’s exams. The UCP blamed the problem on the former NDP government, arguing the previous government’s decision to end privatized testing resulted in fewer examiners and a long waitlist.
Shauna Nordstrom was among those who met with Mr. McIver this week. Her son Logan Hunter was killed in the Broncos crash. The government's reversal caught her off guard.
“It feels pretty good. I have to say that I’m maybe a little bit surprised,” she said in an interview. “I thought we were really going to be in battle for a long time. I’m estactic that we made a difference.”
The new mandatory training programs for Class 1 drivers can cost up to $10,000 and requires more than 100 hours to complete. The Class 2 programs can run up to $5,000.
The pricey program is among the reasons farmers were upset, arguing it they can’t compete for labour given many of their drivers are seasonal employees. The UCP, Mr. Jacka said, intends to drum up solutions to this hurdle.
The agricultural industry had urged the province to treat them differently, arguing that farmers hauling grain and other products to market should not need the same training as long-haul commercial truckers.