REGINA, Sask. – The influence of Saskatchewan’s mandatory entry-level training (MELT) program has been far-reaching in both a positive and negative way on the province’s trucking industry.
That was the opinion of a diverse panel discussion at the Saskatchewan Trucking Association’s (STA) annual AGM this past weekend, during which panelists gave the MELT program varying grades depending on their respective professions.
The lowest mark came from Earl Driedger, who owns Maximum Training, which has been in the driver education business since 2001.
Driedger said his enrolment is down 75% since the introduction of MELT, and that colleagues he has spoken to say they are experiencing the same decline.
“If you guys have a shortage of drivers, you’re going to have an incredible shortage of drivers in the next six to 12 months,” Driedger told attendees.
Though Driedger said Saskatchewan’s MELT program is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to bring it to the standards he and other training schools have been advocating for for several years.
“It’s a step in the right direction for sure, but the material and the set up that we have to work with, I’d put in more towards a C or a D,” he said of the score he would give today’s program.
Areas where Driedger said the program could be improved includes more drive time behind the wheel, providing financial assistance to students, and perhaps most importantly, testing all students in urban centers, as opposed to some being tested in less-congested rural locations where they are more likely to pass.
“You can train anywhere you want,” he said, “but the testing should be done in particular centers that have all the aspects of driving capabilities that are required.”
Mario Da Silva, corporate risk, safety, and security manager for Manitoulin Transport, agreed, saying, “With test centers, what we’re noticing is that a driver might fail in a certain test center, and they might go a couple of hours north, and that same person passes.”
Da Silva had a more positive outlook of the MELT program than Driedger, giving it a good grade because it puts all drivers on the same level playing field and standard.
“When you look at the responsibility the driver has on the road, it’s just enormous, with regards to load securement, fatigue management, hours of service, the transportation of dangerous goods, and sharing the road with smaller vehicles,” said Da Silva. “So, the key is driver safety and training.”
Da Silva did echo Driedger’s sentiment that the MELT program as it currently stands is a good start. He added that more needs to be done to improve both the program and safety on Canadian roads, and carriers play a big role in that effort.
“At the end of the day, it’s our employee and our equipment on the public road,” said Da Silva. “So, we as carriers, we’re responsible of properly training our employees.”
Ron Foord, director of carrier and vehicle safety services for Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI), gave the MELT program a good score, as it improves safety and includes farm workers, which he said was a great achievement.
“The program was implemented with the goal of having the safest roads in Canada,” said Foord, “and that was the guiding principle, so I would give it a very high grade.”
Foord said SGI is also monitoring drivers who acquired their Class 1 license in the months prior to MELT being mandated to ensure they are achieving high safety standards.
With the Humboldt tragedy being the catalyst for much of the changes across Western Canada in the past year, Foord highlighted the fact that carrier monitoring was improved long before, with better predictive modeling and auditing procedures since 2014.
“We’ve tried to be accountable for every change that we’ve made we’ve tried to have a measure,” he said. “As we increase the number of audits, the crashes seem to drop.”
Foord said in 2013, there were 80 audits conducted on National Safety Code (NSC) monitored carriers, and there were 800 collisions. In 2018, the number of audits increased to 290, and the number of collisions dropped to 600.
“It’s not a light switch, it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Foord, “but we changed our carrier profile working with the Saskatchewan Trucking Association to better identify carriers that are high-risk.”
Foord also urged attendees to review a study done by Virginia Tech University outlining the most effective interventions carriers can employ to help reduce collisions involving their fleet.
“Carrier do have the most effect on the drivers,” he said.
Kwei Quaye, vice-president of traffic safety, driver and support services for SGI, also touted MELT as being a success, but shied away from giving it a grade.
“Last year, around this time, there was no MELT, there was no program. A lot of effort went into creating what we have here today,” said Quaye. “The model that we have is not a perfect model, but if you see the manual it is about 366 pages…does it cover everything? Probably not. Does it cover all the competencies, probably, yes. Could it be better? Absolutely.”
Quaye underscored the fact that the Saskatchewan government was looking at implementing a MELT program prior to the Humboldt incident, albeit on a lesser scale than the province’s 121.5 hours of training it requires today.
Quaye said the program was shaping up to includes somewhere around 70-80 hours of training, but that making it mandatory seemed “far-fetched” at the time.
“Then April happened and everything changed…Humboldt happened and the rest is history,” he said. “It’s a mandatory program that provides a huge opportunity for us to do better than we were doing before, and we are committed to growing it and making it better each and every day.”
Thought the program is mandatory for anyone looking acquire their Class 1 license, Driedger suggested some schools in Saskatchewan are not yet up to par.
Driedger said he knows of some schools that are completing their driver training programs in three weeks, whereas at Maximum, it takes four.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing, and I don’t know how they can do that,” he said. “I don’t know if things are getting a short-cut or if they are cheating and doing it in less time.”
Quaye said schools have until the end of the year to get their programs in compliance with the new MELT standard, which was extended from the previous Aug. 1 deadline.
He said any school not complying with the MELT standard after that time will face an audit and possible penalties until they are in line with the program.
Aside from MELT, Quaye said the government has been working on other initiatives to improve safety for the trucking industry, including additional rest stops and upgrading roads.
Da Silva added that carriers can use telematics to look at driver behavior and use the data as a training tool. He said educating the public on how to share the road with commercial vehicles is also important.
“There’s a reason why trucks leave that space between,” he said, “and as soon as you cut in front of them, you just took away 50% of that safe stopping distance.”
Attendees said they would like to see the addition of driver profiles carriers can access as part of their hiring process. They said this would add to transparency and ensure drivers cannot hide past incidents from potential employers.