'It's about damn time': Driver trainer cautiously optimistic about mandatory training for Sask. semi drivers

A veteran semi driving instructor says the Saskatchewan government is heading in the right direction with new rules for prospective drivers.

Farm workers exempt from changes

SGI announced upcoming changes Monday that will see driver training become mandatory for anyone seeking a licence to drive semis. (Don Somers/CBC)

A veteran semi driving instructor says the Saskatchewan government is heading in the right direction with new rules for prospective drivers.

On Monday, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) announced mandatory training requirements for people looking to test for a licence to drive semi-trailer trucks.

Instructor Reg Lewis has been pressing the government for years to bring in compulsory driver education.

"It's about damn time," he said. "It's a step in the right direction, but I don't think it goes far enough," he said.

Swift Current driving instructor Reg Lewis is glad the Saskatchewan government has introduced mandatory driver training for semi-trailer trucks. (Jason Warick)

Joe Hargrave, the provincial minister responsible for SGI, said the province has been looking since mid-2017 at at how to improve training and testing for semi drivers.

"Everyone involved in the process that led to these new requirements share the same goal — to reduce the number of collisions involving semi trucks and the number of people hurt and killed in those collisions," he told reporters.

Saskatchewan came under fire for its lack of mandatory training after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Sixteen people died and 13 were injured when the team's bus collided with a semi in April.

While Hargrave said the revised rules have been in the works for more than a year, predating the crash, he admitted the crash affected everyone.

"Everybody feels it in their heart," he said. "Sometimes a tragedy like that does bring people and they go, 'Yes, the industry needs to evolve into this."

16 people died and 13 were injured when a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos team bus collided with a semi-trailer truck in April. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Under SGI's new rules, new semi drivers will have to undergo a minimum of 121.5 hours of training before trying out for their licence. That includes a minimum of 47 classroom hours, 17.5 hours driving in the yard and 57 hours behind the wheel.

The province is also changing the curriculum for would-be truckers. It will focus on driving techniques, vehicle inspections and air brakes.

The province also promised more rigourous driving tests that will only be offered by SGI examiners.

The new requirements are expected to be in place in March 2019.

A new 12-month safety monitoring program is also being introduced for all new semi drivers. SGI will monitor these drivers more stringently for a year after their test so remedial action can be taken if there are safety concerns.

If new drivers are involved in a collision that is their fault, or get any tickets, it could lead to extra penalties.

Existing Class 1 drivers will be grandfathered into the system.

Farm exemptions

People driving for farming operations will be exempt from the new mandatory training rules and the 12-month period of additional scrutiny.

They wouldn't be allowed to drive semi-trailers outside the province, but wouldn't face any further restrictions.

Hargrave said the farm exemption was a test case and would be monitored before being made permanent. He said adding restrictions to farm operations driving short distances could make hiring personnel difficult.

"It might be a little more difficult to get a farm worker to drive their semis to haul from their fields into their bins," he said. "Most farmers hire commercial drivers when it's any distance."

Driving inspector Lewis said the exemption for farmers means there will still be untrained semi drivers on Saskatchewan roads.

"I don't think there should be any exemptions," Lewis said.

Murray Coleman, another driving instructor, said he agrees somewhat. He said he'd be more comfortable if farm drivers were kept off the highway.

 "I think there should be a circumference on what distance they could travel," Coleman, who runs road tests for Bison Transport, said. "Let them do their job, but keep them out of the motoring public."

He said all drivers running a semi for a long distance should have training first.

"There are good farmers, but if they want to run a couple hundred miles to take their grain, they should have to have a commercial licence."

Farm trucks will be exempt from the new rules. (Submitted by: Mark Hoffman)

Bruce Gooding, who runs a grain farm near Gray, Sask., said he would be willing to take the mandatory training.

"I think some of the drivers will need it," said Gooding. "I think some of the new truck drivers, it would help."

He said it's a complicated situation. Some farmers need to transport their grain hundreds of kilometres to sell their crop.

"Some farmers are two hours away from the terminal, so they would need an exemption," he said. "There's a lot of open country out there, and they're a long way from an elevator."

Todd Lewis, president of the Agriculture Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said the new rules strike a good balance.

"And if there is an issue for safety for farm driving let's talk about that, and if we need more training, let's get it," he said.

Saskatchewan Transportation Association (STA) executive director Susan Ewart said the association's members praised the new changes. She said any bumps with the new farming program can be ironed out.

"I think the thing we need to look at is competency-based learning," she said. "Maybe it's a different sort of curriculum, maybe it's not as extensive as, say, if I was a new driver, what I would have to do."

Some provinces like Ontario require have minimum hours of training required before a driver can test for a licence. Saskatchewan, along with many other provinces, didn't require any training at all.

Last year, more than 200 people who tried out for their licence in Saskatchewan had received no training. Three-quarters of students trying for their Class 1 licence passed on their first try. One student passed the exam after trying eight times in a row.

In 2009, the record number of crashes involving semis in any year in Saskatchewan never exceeded 943. It's been well over 1,000 every year since.

With files from Jason Warick, Bonnie Allen