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According to figures provided by B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, 76 commercial carriers in British Columbia had an 'unsatisfactory-unaudited' safety rating as of Dec. 31, 2019.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

As of late last year, more than 70 B.C. trucking companies were operating with an “unsatisfactory-unaudited” rating – a provincial status that means the companies have racked up enough safety violations to trigger additional monitoring, including a potential audit.

According to figures provided by B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, 76 commercial carriers in British Columbia had an “unsatisfactory-unaudited” safety rating as of Dec. 31, 2019. At that point, the company has been flagged for safety risks, but has not been audited, which involves an in-person inspection of a company’s records.

And more than a year after B.C.’s Auditor-General warned a lack of timely audits was leaving some unsafe carriers on the road for long stretches of time, it’s still unclear when or even if any of the carriers flagged for unsafe practices will be audited.

“The issue is, how long does it take for these [carriers] to be audited and either come into compliance or be punted?” says Dave Earle, president of the B.C. Trucking Association.

The companies with an “unsatisfactory-unaudited” rating account for a small portion – less than 1 per cent – of B.C.'s 35,000 carriers. Most of them are likely small. A fleet-size breakdown for the year ended March 31, 2019, showed 133 carriers with an unsatisfactory-unaudited rating. The biggest chunk of those – 55, or nearly half – operated fleets of between two and five trucks. A handful – seven carriers in all – had fleets of 50 vehicles or more.

Of the 35,004 active carriers in the province, 110 were audited last year. Of those, 42 had unsatisfactory results. The vast majority of carriers – 96 per cent – are ranked as “satisfactory-unaudited,” meaning they have not had safety violations that would flag them as potential problems in need of an audit.

Ministry efforts appear to be having an impact. The Globe and Mail first asked the B.C. Ministry of Transportation for the number of carriers classified as unsatisfactory-unaudited, in October. At that time, there were 153.

When asked how long the carriers with an unsatisfactory-unaudited rating had been in that category, a ministry spokeswoman said it wasn’t possible to readily provide that information and suggested filing a Freedom of Information request.

That makes it difficult to determine what the province is doing to crackdown on carriers whose poor practices put them in the unsatisfactory-unaudited category in the first place, a concern shared by B.C. Auditor-General Carol Bellringer.

“The ministry has said it is expecting the audits to take place in a three- to six-month time frame. If they can’t give you the counts on those things, then how do they know if that’s happening?” Ms. Bellringer said.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena says her ministry has hired additional staff, is working through carrier-safety audits and has an action plan to address the Auditor-General’s concerns.

“I’m not OK with any having that [unsatisfactory-unaudited] status,” Ms. Trevena said, adding “I am never going to be happy until we get a zero unsatisfactory rating or zero non-compliance.”

Safety regulations

Truck safety has come under a national spotlight since the Humboldt Broncos crash in April, 2018, when an inexperienced driver drove through a stop sign at a rural Saskatchewan intersection and smashed into a hockey-team bus. The crash killed 16 people and injured 13 others.

The tragedy resulted in calls for regulatory reform, including mandatory entry level-training for drivers. Ontario implemented mandatory training in 2017. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have since introduced new training requirements.

B.C. says it is working on a driver-training program and other reforms.

Despite an increased focus on driver training and safety regulations, problems persist in this sector. In its annual report, released in December, Ontario’s Auditor-General found more than half of Ontario’s 60,000 carriers, including many with a history of collisions, had not had any of their commercial vehicles inspected by provincial inspectors in the past two years, Also in December, Manitoba’s Auditor-General released a report on commercial vehicle safety that said the province’s regulatory system did not provide enough oversight and that almost 50 per cent of truck traffic was taking place when major weigh stations are closed.

B.C. uses the unsatisfactory-unaudited rating as part of the National Safety Code system, a federal program that sets minimum standards for commercial vehicles across the country.

A carrier gets that rating when it collects enough points for violations, ranging from traffic tickets to accidents to faulty brakes, to pass over a certain threshold.

Once that happens, the company is in line for increased monitoring, up to and including an audit, which is typically the last and most serious measure the province uses to weed out problem carriers.

The Globe obtained safety ratings for non-passenger commercial carriers, which include long-haul trucking operators and small businesses that use trucks, such as cement or garbage companies.

The names of the companies were not immediately available from the ministry.

However, the case of one of those companies is instructive. SSB Trucking, identified in a Globe investigation earlier last year, had an unsatisfactory-unaudited rating for 18 months and only entered the audit process in December.

In 2012, a driver won an insurance case against SSB Trucking after one of its trucks rolled backward into her vehicle as she sat behind it, waiting to turn left.

In a claim filed last September in B.C. Supreme Court, a woman claims she was a passenger in a car struck by drywall that fell off a truck owned by the company. A response has not been filed in that case.

SSB Trucking did not reply to requests for comment.

Follow-up Audits

B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation accepted all of the nine recommendations in a December, 2018, Auditor-General’s report on trucking safety, including that the government “ensure timely and consistent interventions with carriers.”

“We are working to speed up our timelines and getting carriers audited as quickly as possible,” Ms. Trevena told The Globe.

In the 2018 report, Ms. Bellringer noted the number of carrier safety inspectors – about 15 – was the same as in 1996, when a previous B.C. auditor-general raised concerns that with fewer than 15 inspectors, the ministry could not audit carriers on a random basis within a reasonable time.

The number of investigators has stayed about the same even as the number of carriers increased, from about 26,000 to more than 33,000. As of December, the ministry employed 14 inspectors.

Ministry expectations call for audits for non-compliant carriers within three to six months of being triggered by carrier non-compliance, while follow-up audits – ordered for those carriers who fail the first time around – are supposed to be done within eight to 12 months, Ms. Bellringer said in the report.

The ministry had been largely able to meet its expectations for timely follow-up audits, with just 14 per cent behind schedule.

But 46 per cent of audits for non-compliant carriers triggered or requested in the first half of 2016 had not yet been started 12 to 18 months later. In the busy South Coast region, which includes Metro Vancouver, 75 per cent of audits for non-compliant carriers triggered or requested in the first half of 2016 had not been started 12 to 18 months later.

An Globe investigation last year focused on B.C. trucking companies that hire foreign workers and examined 96 B.C. companies that received federal approval to hire foreign workers in 2018. It found nearly a third of those companies – including several with satisfactory-unaudited ratings – had a record of significant safety problems, including accidents in which people claimed they were injured.

Both the B.C. and federal governments said they would review policies as a result.

Several companies are now under increased scrutiny because of the story, Ms. Trevena said. Two of those carriers were already under audit and probes are planned for others because of concerns raised.

“This was really putting a focus on a number of trucking companies that we focused on, because of the profile your piece gave to the issue,” Ms. Trevena said. “Any that were cited are being monitored.”

The province maintains its enforcement efforts are working, noting that while the number of targeted inspections has remained consistent over the past five years – more than 25,000 a year – the number of carriers “cancelled for cause” is trending down over the same period, dropping from 30 in 2014 to 14 in 2018.

While it might seem like a simple fix to increase the number of audits and carrier safety inspectors, the trucking regulatory regime is complex and involves multiple agencies, Ms. Bellringer said.

“It is not just having more people, it is having then in the right place, at the right time, as well,” Ms. Bellringer said.

The BCTA’s Mr. Earle, meanwhile, says he wants audits to kick in sooner to help squeeze marginal operators to the sidelines.

“It needs to be a very focused regime – why aren’t you going out to every person who gets an NSC [National Safety Code certificate] in a given year and … completing an audit?”

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