The province is exempting drivers who recently sought to obtain a Class 1 licence from costly new training requirements — but the controversial issue is far from settled.
“It’s kind of nice that they’re relaxing it for a few people — I hope they have more coming,” said Kendall Bevans, a Cardston-area farmer who has been calling on the province to change course on the new rules when it comes to the ag sector.
“Other than that, reading into it, it is hard to know what they are doing, beyond a few people who have received their licence in the last 12 months.”
Those new training rules — called Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT) — were brought in by the previous NDP government following the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, which killed 16 people in April 2018. The accident prompted reviews of driver training standards in the trucking industry throughout Canada. In Alberta, the training was to be required for new drivers of heavy trucks (Class 1 licences) and buses (Class 2 licences).
But some farmers, including Kendall, criticized the move as too onerous and too expensive as they require up to 113 hours of training, which could cost $10,000.
“In the ag industry, people float around enough — no one is going to say ‘I’m going to work for a farmer and I want to spend $10,000 on a Class 1 licence,” said Bevans, who runs a cattle, grain and hay operation.
The new United Conservative government has been walking a tightrope between those who say the rules are impractical for farmers and those who say tougher licensing rules are needed to reduce the chances of another tragedy like the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
In its latest move, the government has quietly exempted farmers and farm workers who recently applied for a Class 1 licence. They were supposed to start the training no later than Nov. 30, 2020 and had until March 1, 2021 to complete it and take the road test. Those who had a Class 1 licence prior to Oct. 11, 2018 did not have to meet the MELT requirements.
The latest change means those who received their licence between then and Feb. 28 will also be grandfathered if they have a clean driving record. Several media outlets reported affected drivers received letters from Alberta Transportation confirming the exemption.
“It sounds to me like they’re trying to appease people on both sides and they don’t dare announce it,” said Bevans.
The whole situation has become very confusing, he added.
“We have a fellow who works for us that got his licence two or three weeks ago,” he said. “I’m assuming that what they mean is that by the time it gets for him to take the new training, if he has a totally clean record, they’ll exempt him from it.
“I have another who wants to take the test right away, and it sounds like he won’t be exempt from it. What it sounds like to me is we’re still going to be spending $10,000 within a year.”
Bevans said he won’t have much choice as he needs semi drivers on his farm.
“We’re already in a crunch. Anyone that we hire on has to have a Class 1 licence. We have 400 cows, we have a grain farm, we do hay and our main vehicles are semis.”
But families of the hockey players killed or injured in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash want the new rules put into effect with no exceptions.
In a tweet, Toby Boulet, who lost his son in the bus crash, said there should be no distinction between a long-haul commercial trucker and someone delivering grain to an elevator.
“The same roads are used so the same rules need to apply,” he said on Twitter. “I will speak face to face with anyone who believes a load of grain has more value than my son’s life.”
But Bevans questions whether the new training requirements will make the roads safer.
It was hard enough to get drivers under the old system, he said, adding it cost about $800 and involved a day course, a written test, and a driving exam. The extra time commitment and cost for the new training will just shrink the pool of qualified drivers, Bevans said.
“Honestly, it will make the roads more dangerous because we will have the same two guys running a truck that five or six guys should be running. We will have fewer drivers for the job that needs to be done.”
Most of his close calls have come from people driving cars or light trucks who do not know how to behave around large vehicles, he said. A basic driving licence should come with some training about how to interact with larger vehicles, he added.
“I honestly believe that would bring more safety to the system than what they are doing,” he said.
The issue has become overly emotional and the government should step back and take a second look at it from a practical viewpoint.
“I would like to see some studies. Is there another province that has already done this? And do they have stats to show they’re safer?”
Premier Jason Kenney spoke to the issue at a press conference in September.
“For us, safety comes first and so we need to make sure that people who are licensed to drive, particularly long-haul trucks, have been through rigorous training and licensing requirements,” he said.
But he added consideration would be given to farmers who are simply taking grain to a regional terminal.
“They’re not full-time truckers. This is a complex issue,” said Kenney.