'These are loaded weapons': Documents show mandatory semi training would save lives

Seven months after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, semi driver training remains optional despite the government’s own internal documents saying more people will die until it becomes mandatory.

Training is optional but Sask. government official promises announcement 'very soon'

Scott Thomas' son, Evan, died in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April. He says internal government documents reveal the government's hypocrisy on road safety issues. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Scott Thomas knows what it's like to lose a child on Saskatchewan highways — his son, Evan, was killed in the April 6 Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

What Thomas doesn't understand is why the provincial government still allows new semi drivers to hit the road with no training.

Seven months after the crash, training remains optional despite the government's own internal documents saying more people will die until it becomes mandatory.

"These are loaded weapons…ticking time bombs," Thomas said after reviewing the documents.

"They're putting their heads in the sand. I don't understand why."

CBC News obtained the internal emails and memos through a Freedom of Information request. They cover communications among Saskatchewan Government Insurance senior managers in the weeks following the Humboldt crash. CBC News shared the documents with Thomas and others.

A memorial made of hockey sticks, crosses and Canadian flags is seen at the crash site of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team near Tisdale, Sask. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The months of inaction are confusing, hypocritical and shameful, say Thomas, driving instructors, and even an employee within SGI's driver safety division.

"Open your eyes, smell the coffee and see what's going on around you because there is more and more people dying on these highways," said Swift Current veteran driving instructor Reg Lewis.

The government could make an announcement as early as next week about semi driver training, SGI auto fund chief operating officer Penny McCune said in an interview Monday. She declined to say whether training will be made mandatory.

"Definitely, it's an option we're exploring," McCune said.

Calls to improve road safety after bus crash

The Broncos tragedy spurred a global outpouring of support for the small Prairie city, the team, and the families of those killed and injured. Hundreds placed flowers, stuffed animals and messages at the crash site. Memorial services were broadcast on national television. And donors from 80 countries pledged more than $15 million to families through an online campaign.

At the same time, there were calls to improve road safety. Many demanded the Saskatchewan government make training mandatory for semi drivers. New drivers are required to take a written and road exam, but hundreds have passed it and hit the roads with no training.

Mandatory training would save lives, advocates said.

Senior SGI officials appeared to agree, at least privately.

In an email chain April 18, SGI's director of driver development and safety Shay Shpak asks her boss, SGI vice-president Kwei Quaye, if he still wants to see a report on mandatory training.

"I captured some thoughts (pros and cons) based on our last conversation," Shpak wrote.

On SGI letterhead, a two-page summary headlined "Commercial Truck Training – Optional or Mandatory" is shared.

Under the mandatory category, several benefits are listed. Mandatory training would increase public confidence in the industry, make Saskatchewan drivers more employable in other provinces, and be easier to implement than a complicated incentive program. Saskatchewan could also borrow heavily from Ontario, which already makes training mandatory.

But one point stood out for those who reviewed the documents. SGI believes mandatory training would mean fewer people killed or injured.

"Better quality drivers are safer driver = fewer fatal/injury/property damage collisions," states the document.

One of the "challenges" listed was the cost of mandatory training. However, it states SGI would save money with fewer accident claims. And one floated alternative — optional training with incentives — would be complicated and expensive.

Former semi driving instructor Mel Meikle says the Saskatchewan government has known for months that mandatory training will save lives but has not acted. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Quaye emails back one minute later:

"Thanks, shay. no need [to review the document] we are working towards mandatory … this is a mandatory, mandatory project."

The next morning, driver safety manager Kathryn Garton confirms SGI is making semi training mandatory.

"Since we're doing mandatory training, I need to redo the project proposal."

Four days later, on April 23, Garton emails Shpak the new proposal with details.

On April 25, the CBC reveals in a story more than 200 Saskatchewan semi drivers on the road have no training. Calls for mandatory training grow.

On the morning of April 26, SGI emails a memo to all Saskatchewan driving instructors announcing mandatory training. It cites the public attention on the issue following the Broncos crash, and says they have support from driving schools and the industry.

The memo promises a plan by early 2019, with full implementation shortly after.

"We are all united in wanting to make our roads as safe as possible," states the memo from SGI driver education liaison Joanne Moldenhauer, copied to Shpak and other senior officials. "This is good news for the province and the motoring public and we believe this initiative will increase traffic safety on Saskatchewan roads."

CBC News published the memo. Local and national industry officials praised the government for the move.

However, SGI reverses its position the next day. Kwei and others apologized for any "confusion" caused by the memo.

By April 30, things also change internally.

"I basically just removed the mandatory language and beefed up the consulting process," Shpak says in an email to Quaye and Garton.

By May 9, the word "Mandatory" has been changed to "Standardized." Details of the new plan have been redacted in the package sent to CBC News.

The reason for the change isn't stated in the documents. More than a dozen other emails are itemized in the package sent to CBC News, but have been partially or fully redacted.

A separate CBC request for SGI correspondence with outside parties has not yet been received.

The wreckage of a fatal crash outside of Tisdale, Sask., is seen in April. Sixteen people were killed and 13 others injured. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Driving instructor Reg Lewis and former instructor Mel Meikle think they know the reason.

They said many farmers work at least part-time as semi drivers, and some are reluctant to spend the time or money on training courses. The government relies on that rural support, so may not want to upset a key demographic, they said.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," said Meikle.

They note the government has known for more than seven months that mandatory training would save lives. They point to last week's fatal semi collisions involving a motorist near Wakaw and a volunteer firefighter near Rosetown. RCMP investigations into those crashes are ongoing.

Other provinces and training

Ontario already has mandatory training. Alberta is starting in January, citing the Broncos crash in its announcement. Other provinces say they'll also bring it in.

CBC News also spoke to an SGI employee in the driver safety division. The worker, who spoke on condition their name was not used because they feared they'd be fired, said staff are also shocked there is still no mandatory semi driver training. The employee said they don't know why government officials are "dragging their feet."

McCune said she hasn't encountered anyone opposed to mandatory training. She agrees mandatory training saves lives, but said there are many other factors involved.

She said the upcoming announcement will lead to safer roads, but wouldn't give specifics. McCune said she doesn't want to "steal the thunder" of those making the announcement.

She said the emails and memos sent by senior SGI officials in April wrongly implied a decision on mandatory training had been made.

"We make recommendations to the government. It is not our place to make that call," she said. "Definitely, the staff got a bit ahead of this."

Thomas said he is clinging to the hope that his son's death will make the roads safer for others. He said reading the "hypocritical" government emails, and the months of delays, have broken his heart all over again.

"You lose a level of faith in the people who are supposed to be taking care of us, governing us," Thomas said.

"This is something we can control. Do something."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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