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Is This Progress?

by Jim Park

Ontario drivers could soon see the end of the complex, costly, and ineffective pre-trip inspection requirements currently in place. And if we're lucky, work being done to change the rules in that province could spread elsewhere. As things stand, there's little consistency in vehicle condition standards from coast to coast, and inter-provincial enforcement is even less consistent. Worse, the rules often place drivers in direct conflict with their carriers and enforcement personnel.

This may all be resolved in the very near future thanks to the combined efforts of the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA), the Ontario Motor Coach Association, and Ontario's Ministry of Transportation (MTO).

These folks have been quietly developing more realistic trip inspection rules. They've also developed a set of guidelines for drivers defining what is and isn't a safety-related defect and what is and what is not expected of a driver during the trip inspection. Given the nearly unworkable nature of the current requirements, these changes - if they're approved - should be welcomed with cheers and applause from the steering wheel crowd. They look like a real step forward.

In a pilot project involving several carriers and some 200 drivers, the proposed new inspection regime is being tested to see if it works as well in the field as it does on paper. But even if the revisions are eventually adopted in Ontario, other jurisdictions will be under no obligation to give them more than passing consideration. Approval and implementation is another thing altogether. What's good for Ontario isn't always seen as good for the rest of Canada.

Let's Make a Deal

Currently, Ontario drivers are held to nearly the same level of responsibility as certified mechanics, but the MTO has acknowledged that current regs are unreasonable. There's too much room for interpretation, and that's often what gets drivers and carriers into trouble at the scales. A defect may seem minor and not worth noting to a driver, but the inspectors may see it differently. In fact, Ontario's Highway Traffic Act (HTA) says that you can't drive a commercial vehicle with any sort of defect, no matter how minor. Period.

Rolf VanderZwaag, OTA's maintenance and technical advisor and one of the project's prime movers, calls the current practice absurd. He says the zero-tolerance approach puts the driver in a difficult position: 'How do I drive a vehicle with a defect and how do I note the defect without having to repair it?' The driver is in violation either way. If he doesn't find the defect, he's charged with failing to complete a trip inspection, and if he finds one and it isn't repaired he's driving an unsafe vehicle.

"We're trying to add some reasonability to these regulations, and to remove some of the inconsistencies in interpretation and enforcement of the rules by giving drivers the tools and the latitude they need to make some decisions themselves," VanderZwaag says.

Bill Mocsan of MTO's Carrier Safety Policy Branch describes the new proposal as something of a trade-off. He says drivers and carriers will be given a bit more discretion in dealing with minor defects. He's working with a plan that would require the minor defect to be noted in the trip inspection sheet, but there would be a short grace period in which the carrier would have to repair the problem, then furnish proof to the MTO that the repair had been carried out.

"If the driver has been diligent in his inspection, it's unlikely that he'd be charged at the scale," says Mocsan. "But we'd require some sort of proof that the defect had been dealt with in a 'reasonable' amount of time."

The trade-off here is that the fines for not repairing the defect would likely be steeper than the fines for non-compliance are now. That's still to be resolved, but this is something that drivers and carriers can benefit from, and most have wanted it for quite some time.

The Driver's Role

Assuming the proposed revisions are put in place, drivers will undergo some sort of formal training in conducting a trip inspection with an emphasis on how to determine what constitutes a defective component or system. And they've gone a step further, breaking the term 'defect' into two categories:

1. "Defect" - any condition of a vehicle, vehicle component or system that is described in Regulation 611 of the HTA (minor, or non-safety related).

2. "Prescribed defect" - any condition of a vehicle, vehicle component or system that is defined (basically as a CVSA out-of-service defect).

The 22 inspection items listed on the revised trip inspection report are divided into these two categories. A driver finding a minor defect will note it accordingly and be allowed to proceed with the trip. A prescribed defect will ground the truck.

But here's the good part. They've developed a guidebook telling the driver what to look for, what the system does, and the method of inspection. Here's an example from the guide, section 18 on suspension systems:

Inspection Requirements

Drivers must inspect the suspension system for condition of springs and other components, vehicle position and response.

Safe Performance Requirements

The suspension must support the vehicle and provide stable vehicle operation.

Defects (minor)

  • Air leak in air suspension system
  • Broken spring leaf
  • Abnormal vehicle behavior

Prescribed Defects (major)

  • Deflated air spring
  • Cracked or broken main spring leaf or more than one broken secondary spring leaf
  • Part of the leaf or suspension is missing, shifted, noticed by driver, out of place or in contact with another vehicle component
  • Suspension fastener is loose, missing or broken

Method of Inspection - How to find these defects.

This inspection will require you to get into a position that provides a good view of the springs or air bags, such as crouching, kneeling or squatting. Look for broken or cracked leaf springs. With the air system at full operating pressure, listen for leaks in the bags or the air suspension system. While driving, check for abnormal vehicle behavior that may indicate a defect in the suspension.

That's it. Pretty straightforward with little left to interpretation. As in other sections of the guide, the references to kneeling, crouching or squatting suggest that drivers will no longer expected or required to crawl under the truck to complete the inspection. VanderZwaag says the emphasis has been placed on dealing with inspection points that the driver has reasonable access to and could be expected to spot with a reasonable amount of contortion. In the case where certain components are obscured by fairing or cab skirts, the maintenance responsibility will fall squarely on the carrier. But don't get too excited just yet, as this is still only a proposal.

Kitch Radke, one of the drivers participating in the test program, says it's a lot better than the current system. "It lets you off the hook for things that aren't your responsibility," he says. "Under this plan, I know what I'm required to do, and what the shop is supposed to do."

This proposal is a work in progress at best, and may never even see the light of day. How drivers and carriers deal with that other bit of friction - the delay time and costs resulting from the needed repairs - is another issue. In some ways, this scheme places even more responsibility on the driver by more clearly defining his obligations, but the carrier has to keep up his end of the bargain as well, following through on the driver's reports.

Still, it would be an improvement over where we are now. And you won't get as dirty in the process.

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