February 2004: A Report Card on Big Truck Safety

Gov’ts, trucking firms making roads more dangerous, not safer
February 1, 2004

More than 500 Canadian motorists and their passengers are killed every year in highway and road collisions with big trucks, and another 11,500 a year, on average, are injured in such collisions.

In today’s deregulated free-trade environment, trucking companies are under pressure to cut costs, and governments have bowed to industry lobbying to allow bigger and longer rigs, to exempt them from some regulations, to allow truckers to work longer hours, and to relax or even lower safety standards. The rising carnage on our highways involving big trucks is one of the consequences.

Every 12 minutes in this country, a big truck is involved in a collision. On average, there are about 43,000 such collisions every year.

Every 45 minutes someone is injured in such a collision, and every 16 hours someone is killed.

The size and weight of trucks are crucial because they affect the stability and control of these rigs, the way they interact with other traffic, and the impact that occurs when crashing into smaller vehicles. Compared to cars, big trucks take longer to stop, are prone to jackknifing and rollovers, and often block motorists’ views.

Some trucks are worse than others. Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces, for example, allow single semi-trailer trucks with higher weight limits than are allowed in Western Canada. These trucks are more top-heavy and inclined to jackknife or roll over. The prairie provinces allow longer double-trailer and even triple-trailer trucks that do not meet national safety performance standards for rollovers or wandering outside their lane. During rainy weather, they create longer and heavier periods of splash and spray for other motorists. And they are more difficult to steer and control.

Current Canadian regulations allow trucks up to 62.5 tons (137,850 lbs) compared to the U.S. maximum allowable weight of 36.4 tons (80,000 lbs) on the U.S. federal interstate system.

Truck drivers pushed to work excessive hours have less time for rest and are more likely to nod off at the wheel. By recently permitting truck drivers to drive for 13 consecutive hours, Canada has set a dubious world record for maximum trucker driving hours allowed in a single shift.

Truck drivers are typically paid by the mile, and, being mostly non-unionized, are paid at a relatively low hourly rate. They are under tremendous economic pressure to work even more hours than are legally allowed. Although the federal government requires electronic recorders to be used on ships, trains, and commercial aircraft to counter this dangerous practice in these modes of transport, it has not mandated the use of these protective devices on heavy trucks.

Every year, on average, 70 truckers are killed and 3,000 injured in big truck crashes, making it one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada. These numbers don’t include the dozens of others who are killed or injured while loading, unloading, or repairing their vehicles.

Safety on Canadian roads was further reduced last year when Canadian regulations were amended to allow trucking companies to compel their drivers to be on duty for a staggering 84 hours a week--more than double the length of the average work-week for most other Canadian workers. Companies can now also limit drivers to just one night for sleep between five-night driving shifts. The drivers have to arrange additional rest periods whenever and however they can.

With Ottawa and the trucking industry making our roads and highways more dangerous instead of safer, Canadians are understandably fearful about sharing the roads with so many big trucks. In a recent national survey conducted for CRASH, 83% of those polled felt that the growing number of tractor-trailer trucks has made travel on Canadian roads more dangerous. With 12,000 people now being killed or injured in big truck crashes every year, this concern is obviously well founded.

The federal and provincial governments need to take firm and prompt steps to ensure a safer interaction between large trucks and smaller and more vulnerable road users. Specifically:

• Canadian truck driver workload and working hour maximums must be lowered to at least the limits that are allowed in the United States and Europe.

• Limits on truck size, weight and length should also be brought down to prevailing levels in other countries.

• The exceptions to the National Safety Code granted to some trucking operations, such as those of farm and oil-field vehicles, should be cancelled.

• Restrictions should be placed on the use of urban roads by tractor-trailers, dump trucks, and other large rigs.

• Existing safety rules should be more rigorously enforced, especially by more frequent inspections of trucks to determine if they meet safe operating standards.

• The current patchwork of regulations on trucking operations, which vary from province to province, complicates and restricts the ability of drivers to operate their vehicles safely. A common and consistent nation-wide safety rating system, accessible by the public and the media, is especially needed.

Safety audits of trucking companies should be increased well beyond the current point where more than 90% of carriers are never audited.


(This article was adapted from a Report Card on Big Truck Safety, a publication of Canadians for Responsible and Safe Highways [CRASH]. For more information on the Report Card or on CRASH, phone: (613) 860-0529; e-mail: [email protected]; or see its website at www.web.net/~crash )