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Humboldt Tragedy

Editorial: What We Can Learn From the Humboldt Tragedy

In the intervening month since the last edition of this magazine’s publication a frenzy of media coverage has surfaced over the Humboldt crash. If your recollection is blurred here are some of the details. On April 6, 2018 a semi truck carrying a load of peat moss ignored a stop sign at the intersection of highways 35 and 335 just north of the town of Tisdale, Saskatchewan. A bus carrying 20 people, a hockey team and their supporters, had the right of way and continued northward on Highway 35 through the intersecting Highway 535. That’s when all hell broke loose. The driver of a truck, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, sped through the intersection heading westward on Hwy 535 at about 100 km/h and crashed into the side of the bus. The sheer force of impact catapulted the bus into the air and onto a neighbouring field – its resting place not only for the bus, but for 16 of the 29 passengers who lost their lives that day. The remaining 13 passengers suffered bodily harm to varying degrees, some of them critical. The accident site was not the 401, but a rural corner with little traffic. The cause of such destruction at such an out-of-the-way place defies logic given its remote location and ample warnings. There are four related signs warning motorists on Highway 535 of the approaching Stop sign. Sidhu was oblivious to them all. Instead he was preoccupied with a loose tarp that was flapping in the wind covering his load, according to testimony given in court. Even more astonishing is that his commercial truck driving training lasted about a week before he was tested and received his license. Astonishing because it makes a mockery of commercial transportation’s longstanding mantra: Safety Safety Safety! Sidhu himself admitted the accident happened “because of my lack of experience.” To the driver’s credit he has been immensely contrite and remorseful for the damage he caused for so many – however unwittingly. He has also pleaded guilty to all charges, preferring to waive any defense and spare survivors and relatives the ordeal of a protracted court case. God knows I would never want to be in his place for some stupid and tragic oversight I made, which is why I have some compassion for him as well as, of course, the long suffering victims and their families. Some victims directly affected by Sidhu’s actions have publicly said as much too, extended their forgiveness to the driver. Truly the actions of a noble heart. Meanwhile Sidhu awaits his fate. He can receive up to 14 years in jail. The judge will render a decision on March 22 following submissions from the Crown and Defense teams. But back to the responsibility, if any, of other participants in this tragedy. While on the one hand industry insists upon safety, how is it that drivers with such sketchy training are allowed to be entrusted with the lethal force of a loaded Semi? Yvette Lagrois of Ontario Truck Training Academy (OTTA) says responsibility for training needs to shift from trucking companies to regulators. “Truck training was perceived as the responsibility of an employer. Truck Training and truck driving is a skill, and a driver needs to have a set of pre-selected skills like dexterity, and be able to judge/adjust for the risk of driving or pre-qualification. Humboldt was that defining moment, when as a country we seriously thought about how new drivers are thrown out there, and how as a society we need to take actionable plans to prevent this from happening again.” She went on to say that national requirements emphasize completion of the road test at the expense of formal training required to make licensed drivers into good drivers capable of handling the weight of their many responsibilities. Lagrois feels a national funding program would assist in making accessible universal training. Others believe that Electronic Logging Devices, once they are mandatory across the board in Canada, will prevent drivers from the fudging of books, a charge which was laid against Sidhu in the Humboldt case. But will this prevent further abuse of Hours of Service regulations so that drivers will not continue to drive beyond their allotted limits? Sidhu took it upon himself to take a job for which he was unqualified, a fact that even his own lawyer admits to. “He took the job, quite frankly, with the complete absence of prior driving skill,” said defense attorney Mark Brayford. His employer, too, faces a number of charges related to safety and log keeping regulations. The question presses though: Will operators and companies who break the law cease to do so once ELDs are mandatory? Sidhu is not the first to be involved in a tragedy at this intersection or to miss the stop sign. Twenty years ago a family of six lost their lives by failing to stop at the crossroads. Some local people familiar with the crossway claim the long lightly used highway tends to put drivers in a trance-like state that compromises their alertness. Locals have been advocating for years to install rumble strips to alert drivers to the oncoming intersection and Stop sign. The province, who is responsible for these highways, has failed to do so thus far. During these final weeks while the judge and Sidhu contemplate his fate, the trucking industry and governments must be reflecting on their respective responsibilities and considering an effective plan of action to minimize future accidents. Installing rumble strips is a good place to start. The national implementation of the MELT program will hopefully happen sooner than later in the wake of Humboldt. Thus far only Ontario has introduced this mandatory level training standard. Alberta and Saskatchewan are following suit. Finally, the better use of enforcement resources, especially applied to companies and operators with a history of ignoring compliance, may reassure Canadians that trucking is indeed a safety conscious industry.

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