Cut-rate truck schools in Ontario are producing poorly trained drivers who put the motoring public at risk, a Star investigation reveals.
The Star found two dozen unregulated schools in the GTA that offer to teach students just enough to earn their AZ licence — required to operate a tractor-trailer with air brakes — and to clear new drivers with scant hours behind the wheel to operate a vehicle about 40 times heavier than a car.
These unregulated schools, called “licensing mills” by experienced truckers, thrive by exploiting a provincial loophole. They evade government scrutiny by charging $999 or less, just under the $1,000 threshold the province has set for regulated courses.
Some of these schools even breach the $1,000 cap, yet freely do business under lax oversight by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, the Star’s investigation found.
“Once you have that licence, you could be driving a double-tanker filled with gasoline down the 401 tomorrow,” said David Bradley, president and CEO of the Ontario Trucking Association, which is pushing the province to introduce mandatory, industry-designed instruction for entry-level drivers.
“(Some drivers) really don’t know what they’re doing. They’re a menace to themselves and everybody else.”
A fully loaded tractor-trailer can haul upwards of 36,000 kilograms of freight, including dangerous chemical cargo, and travel at speeds of more than 100 kilometres per hour.
Tractor-trailers are the largest trucks on the road, and when they crash, the results can be disastrous.
In June, a 29-year-old Scarborough man was killed when his car was hit by a transport truck on Hwy. 401 near Thickson Rd. In August, a tractor-trailer burst into flames after it collided with three vehicles, including a Ministry of Transportation truck, on Hwy. 401 at Morningside. The driver escaped the flames.
Both incidents, just two of nearly 4,000 collisions that happen each year involving tractor-trailers, showered debris across the highway and caused hours of traffic chaos. The crashes remain under police investigation, and the Star has not been able to determine the type of training the drivers had.
Provincial statistics for 2011 (the most recent complete government numbers) show that of the 101 fatalities resulting from large-truck crashes, tractor-trailers were involved in 55 deaths.
In a separate report, the Ontario Provincial Police say they investigated 99 fatalities related to truck collisions in 2012 — a five-year high for the force. The statistics do not say how many involved larger tractor-trailers.
The case of Akmal Hayat shows how tractor-trailer drivers from cut-rate schools can end up in trouble.
In January, the 32-year-old Milton man was driving a tractor-trailer near Nipigon, Ont., and trying to pass a snowplow on Hwy. 11, a two-lane expressway at that point. Art Ginter of Winnipeg, also driving a big rig, was coming around the snowy bend from the other direction, and Hayat’s rig nearly collided head-on with the Winnipeg man.
Ginter was forced to veer into the guardrail to avoid Hayat’s truck. A dashboard camera mounted in Ginter’s truck captured the incident. The OPP used the video to track down and charge Hayat, who did not remain on the scene.
Hayat later pleaded guilty to careless driving and was fined $2,500. He is still driving trucks.
Hayat would not speak to the Star in person, claiming on two separate occasions that he was working in Texas and Arkansas. He told the Star in a text message that he and his family are very disturbed about what happened in Nipigon.
“I don’t want to discuss on (sic) this matter anymore,” he wrote. “I am suffering enough.”
Hayat trained at Model Truck and Forklift school in 2007, his brother, Ajmal Hayat, told the Star. The school was never accredited by the province.
The Star discovered that Model Truck and Forklift closed around 2009, then reopened in 2012. The school’s owner, Syed Shah, was operating from a mailing address inside a Malton cheque-cashing store on Goreway Dr., but Shah has since left Canada and returned to Pakistan.
Ginter, a professional truck driver for more than two decades, would not comment for this story because the incident is still “very raw for him,” his wife, Cheryl, said.
Hayat’s brother, Ajmal, is a tractor-trailer driver with his own company who defended his brother as a safe driver.
Reza Moridi, Ontario’s training, colleges and universities minister, would not agree to be interviewed by the Star for this story. Instead, his ministry issued a statement saying students should verify that their school is accredited by the province. Approved truck training courses must be at least 200 hours in duration, including 50 hours of on-road instruction. The Star found that type of intensive training typically costs more than $6,000 for a full course offered over several weeks.
While Moridi’s ministry oversees commercial truck training in Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation controls all vehicle licensing.
The Training, Colleges and Universities Ministry also stated it “has actively pursued enforcement against illegal private career colleges, and publishes the names of illegal operators on its website.”
Since 2010, the ministry says it has “taken enforcement action” against 40 such businesses. The Star checked and found four of these schools were still in operation, despite facing ministry sanctions in the past.
The Star also discovered 24 unregulated schools offering tractor-trailer training around the GTA, by searching websites such as Kijiji and Craigslist, as well as observing business names and phone numbers on brightly coloured signs on the sides of trucks at DriveTest centres for road tests. Many also advertise that they will help students find jobs as truck drivers upon successful completion of the road test — a ministry violation for unregulated schools.
A Star reporter posing as a prospective student hoping to get a job as a truck driver visited Great Truck & Forklift Driving School in Scarborough. The school’s website says the course costs $999.99. In person, the reporter posing as a student was told the full course, including in-truck lessons and air brake training, would tally $1,224.
The school, which has another office in Etobicoke, also offered to set up a medical exam for the reporter for $40. Most doctors typically charge $100 or more for such an exam.
The clerk said the school could help the reporter find a job upon completion of the course.
When the reporter identified himself and explained the story he was writing, the clerk then said the $1,224 course actually comprises two separate courses: a $999.99 course for in-truck lessons, and a $225 air brake course. The Star found that schools often split up the payments to keep below the $1,000 ministry threshold.
The clerk refused to provide her name and claimed to know nothing about the school, including who owned it. The Star visited the school’s Etobicoke location and was told by another clerk that no course was priced over $1,000.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities told the Star the $1,000 threshold was set, in part, to save money on government oversight and “to provide a balance between several competing interests, including the training sector’s need to remain flexible” and “the need for students to receive adequate protection.”
About 1,100 new tractor-trailer licences have been granted in Ontario in each of the past three years, according to provincial statistics. There are about 190,000 registered tractor-trailers in Ontario, the statistics also show.
It’s relatively simple to get a licence to operate a commercial truck, including a tractor-trailer, under provincial rules. Passing the “A” licence written test, the air brake “Z” course, a vision test, a medical exam and possessing a G (passenger car) licence are among the requirements before a DriveTest tractor-trailer exam can be taken.
In fact, the Star discovered there is no requirement for any tractor-trailer driving instruction. Candidates are not asked where they were trained — or if they were trained — before booking a provincial DriveTest exam.
In stark contrast, an Ontario forklift operator must have formal training to meet Ministry of Labour safety standards.
Most people seeking to become commercial truck drivers take some form of training, industry insiders told the Star. That’s where confusion begins for prospective students, who see great disparity in pricing and length of courses.
Schools offering “vocational” truck driver training — instruction that leads to potential employment — must be registered with the province. These vocational schools, known as private career colleges, are regulated and inspected by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. They are mandated to deliver ministry-approved programming.
Some community colleges, such as Humber College’s Transportation Training Centre, also offer comprehensive, ministry-approved programs (e.g., with a minimum of 200 hours of instruction). Community college programs are, in part, developed through consultation with the trucking industry to meet criteria for entry-level employees, said a Humber spokesperson.
The same provincial rules that govern private career colleges state that courses charging less than $1,000 aren’t considered “vocational” programs and can exist without regulation.
The result? Cut-rate schools flourish.
Unregulated schools offer a cheaper, faster way into the trucking business. AZ training at a cut-rate business can be completed over a few days and with as little as 10 hours in the truck.
Yvette Lagrois, president of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario, says it is difficult to keep unregulated schools from cropping up, partly because of the fact that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has just eight inspectors responsible for 600 private career programs for various vocations.
“Think of whack-a-mole at the CNE. What happens? You whack a mole and another one comes up. Anybody with a cellphone and a truck can put out an advertisement on the web,” Lagrois said. “But they may be here today, gone tomorrow.”
Kim Richardson has operated his provincially approved truck training school in Caledonia for 25 years. He said trucking firms that turn away drivers produced by cut-rate schools send the more promising candidates — at their own cost — to his school, KRTS Transportation Specialists, for skills upgrading.
“We make a partial living by people who get screwed by these poor schools and then they can’t get work,” said Richardson, a co-founder of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario.
“They do put the public at risk,” Richardson said of drivers he’s worked with who, despite having earned an AZ licence, are inept on the road.
Richardson’s son, Matt, who works in the family business, said part of the problem is that many cut-rate schools simply teach drivers to pass the provincial road test (which is overseen by the Ministry of Transportation).
“These schools know what a DriveTest centre is looking for because they’ve vetted them, they’ve had students be on the (test) route before. So they train specifically to pass the test,” Matt Richardson said. “They do their two left turns and their two right turns and exactly what they need on the pre-trip inspection and the air brake.
“So great, we now have a licensed driver who has passed a road test because that’s all they were trained for, but they can’t do anything else.”
The Ontario Trucking Association’s Bradley says that, overall, commercial truck drivers “as a class” have a sound safety record.
Collision data collected by the province show truck drivers are at fault only about 30 per cent of the time in fatal crashes. However, Bradley said improved defensive-driving training from mandatory, regulated schooling could potentially reduce truck crashes and the damage done by them.
“We’re held to a higher standard, and so we should be, because we share our workplace with the public,” Bradley said. “So when things do go wrong (in a crash), it can often be spectacular, and we want to be continuously improving.”
Lisa Arseneau, vice-president of transportation at the Pearson Dunn Insurance office in Mississauga, said there is a driver shortage in Canada and properly trained entry-level drivers are needed.
Arseneau said insurance studies show Canada requires an additional 375,000 new drivers over the next decade as the current generation — the average trucker age is 57 — begins to retire. She said the “fly-by-night” schools are not producing drivers who qualify for insurance from reputable companies, and therefore their graduates cannot get jobs.
“You can take any course you want, but it’s worthless unless you can get insured,” said Arseneau, a broker.
So who hires the cut-rate graduates who manage to acquire insurance coverage? Companies that pay low wages, cut corners on vehicle safety repairs and face financial pressure to make deliveries on time in a highly competitive business, insiders told the Star.
Trucking experts interviewed by the Star said a tractor-trailer driver working for a reputable company can earn upwards of $70,000 — depending, generally, on their willingness to spend a lot of time on the road.
Bradley said the Ontario Trucking Association membership he represents — about 1,000 trucking firms, mostly in Ontario but some from the United States — wants the provincial government to establish truck driving as a skilled trade, like an electrician or plumber. That would entail uniform, regulated schooling that, with a diploma, would help to return pride and quality to the job, he said.
Currently, truck driving is perceived by the general public as a “job of last resort” because entry standards are so low, said Bradley.
Bradley added that a mandatory schooling standard created by the trucking industry and enforced by the province would make the cut-rate schools do one of two things:
“They’ll either have to up their game to meet the standard that the industry has set, or they’ll go out of business. And frankly, either one works for me.”