3½ years after devastating Humboldt Broncos crash, licensing for truck drivers in B.C. is changing
Mandatory Entry Level Training, requiring at least 140 hours instruction, becomes mandatory in B.C. on Oct. 18
For Ginny and Lawrence Hunter, it was the worst day of their lives.
They spent 12 hours calling hospitals, watching the news from their Okanagan home, waiting to hear if their 18-year-old son Logan had survived a bus crash in Saskatchewan.
But Logan never returned.
He was one of the 16 lives lost on April 6, 2018, when a semi-trailer blew through a stop sign and collided with a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team to a playoff game.
The crash prompted national conversations about improving the training of commercial vehicle drivers, spurred in part by appeals from victims' relatives — including Logan's father Lawrence and stepmother Ginny.
Those advocacy efforts have now paid off.
On Oct. 18, B.C. will become the latest province to officially implement Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT), which transforms how new truck drivers prepare for the roads.
"We're doing this for all the survivors of the Humboldt bus crash and all the souls that were taken ... we're hoping that the small changes will make them proud that their lives weren't all lost in vain," said Lawrence Hunter.
Calls for the new training program, which requires a minimum of 140 hours of instruction in B.C., escalated after details about the truck driver who caused the crash came to light in court.
The lawyer for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu described him as an inexperienced driver who had spent just two weeks training with another person in the vehicle. Sidhu received an eight-year prison sentence in March 2019 after pleading guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving causing death or bodily injury.
ICBC statistics, meanwhile, show that between 2015 and 2019 there were a total of 285 fatal victim crashes involving at least one heavy vehicle — weighing more than 10,900 kilograms — in the province.
On March 31 this year, B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced MELT would become a prerequisite for semi-trailer driver testing in October. The province follows Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan in implementing the program.
But while safety advocates, driving schools and trucking associations welcome the changes, MELT has also led to higher costs for students and warnings about "licensing mills" that sign off on incomplete training.
How does MELT differ?
Before MELT, driving schools had no mandatory curriculum or hours dedicated to practical training for the Class 1 licence — the licence required for semi-truck drivers.
Drivers were required to take a 16-hour air brake course and two separate knowledge tests before their road test, according to ICBC.
That led to a large discrepancy in what many driving schools taught, said Dave Earle, president and CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association.
"We had some institutes that were ... teaching a variety of skills, then we had other organizations that were very focused on just passing the [road] test," Earle said.
B.C.'s new minimum of 140 hours training is the highest in the country among provinces providing MELT training. The MELT program in B.C. includes 93 hours of practical behind-the-wheel driving hours, in-yard hours and 47 hours of theoretical instruction.
In B.C., MELT has an emphasis on safely operating on mountain roads, with students being trained on routes like the Coquihalla Highway.
Other requirements include learning to chain up tires for snowy conditions and advanced backup training.
Doug Clarke, who operates Over the Road Driving School in Langley, B.C., says the new training leaves him feeling more confident in his students.
"Because there is a minimum, we can really do our job. We can really get into the finer points of truck driving," he said.
Training costs triple
With MELT, Class 1 training costs will increase from around $5,000 to $15,000, typically, according to Earle.
For aspiring drivers like Mike Mcintyre from Lytton, B.C., tripled costs are a barrier to getting the licence.
"It's a little pricey, especially if you don't have the money to back it up as EI funding, First Nations dollars or some other organization that will pay for it ... It's gonna be pretty hard to pay $15,000," he said.
Mcintyre failed his first Class 1 road test and would now need to complete MELT training to take another road test.
As a cheaper alternative, he is now considering getting a Class 3 licence instead, which would allow him to drive dump trucks and large tow trucks.
Rob Fleming, B.C.'s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, says there are several funds and grants regarding MELT for both job seekers and employers.
Ontario was the first province to adopt MELT, in 2017.
Kim Richardson, president of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario — which represents over 60 driving schools — says the province's experience with the program has shown the importance of auditing schools to ensure honest and accurate training.
Richardson says there's insufficient regulation of "licensing mills," which he describes as people and organizations that do not operate MELT honestly.
"When they're signing off on documents, they could be signing for two hours of training, and they only received 30 minutes," he said, by way of example.
"We've heard some real horror stories."
In B.C., driving schools can be audited on MELT at any time by ICBC inspectors, says Steve Houghton of Gold Star Professional Driving School, who was part of the contracting team hired by the insurance corporation to facilitate the program.
He says strict training measures and paperwork requirements for each student should mean a large increase in the pass rate.
"If there's a particular school that doesn't have that high percentage [of pass rates], that kind of makes you think, well, maybe they're skimping on the hours," Houghton said.
Fleming said there are fines and penalties in place for schools that "graduate people too easily."
A testament to trust
In future, Ginny and Lawrence Hunter hope to see more nationally cohesive standards, where, for example, a driver from the Prairies entering B.C.'s mountainous terrain can drive confidently.
But MELT is the first step, they say.
"We got to make something positive come out of something so tragic," Lawrence Hunter said.
"Logan and those people who got on that bus that day, they trusted that they would arrive safely. And we want to increase that level of trust."