Vernon, British Columbia
The road to hell is in British Columbia.
The Canadian truck drivers who move the raw materials, commodities and products along the largely two-lane highway between Calgary, Alberta and Kelowna, British Columbia to make livlihoods and lifestyles possible in Canada’s most western province are heroes.
That British Columbians are not naked, hungry and jobless astounds me now — I am a born and bred British Columbian, who grew up in the shadows of the Monashee and Selkirk mountains in the Kootenay region but never spared a thought for a big truck — because it’s not just the terrain that makes the roads terrifying.
For the first time in my life, I could not get out of my beloved British Columbia fast enough.
British Columbia (BC) is a rough and tumble place, where natural resources are king, the wilderness is extreme and politics is a blood sport. We see ourselves as pioneers, trail blazers, toughnecks, adventurous people who, when up against the elements win, part of a legend of survival.
We delivered in Edmonton, then headed empty to Kelowna to pick up a load to take us back to the US. MacGyver drove two treacherous stretches of BC road, the Trans Canada from Calgary through Revelstoke to Sicamous and Highway 97 south to Kelowna and then the Coquihalla Highway from Kelowna to Hope, about two hours east of Vancouver. Both these highways have sections of downgrades that have that stomach-churning, “feels like flying” view.
The road to Kelowna has poor signage, no indication of percentage of declines, how long the downgrades last or a recommended truck speed. Some will say that drivers use that road regularly and know it. But truck driving is transient, there will always be first timers, and even old timers, who benefit with clues to the road.
On one downgrade, I peeked out from behind the sleeper berth curtain to face two ruts in the snow-covered road, MacGyver’s track, no shoulder, the road flanked by evergreens, wearily weighted down by thick coats of snow, the back of the trailer sliding without weight.
In six hours on the road, one-lane each way and few passing lanes, he saw one sand truck. More importantly there was only one place for him to stop, to park the truck off the road for relief, in Sicamous where he was trapped trying to get into the truck stop. Big trucks wedged one next to the other where he was forced to virtually jackknife Black Beauty to squeeze between a dry box and a flat bed to get out. There was no room at this Inn. So he had to keep going.
Driving for Landstar makes the lack of safe, off-road parking in Canada more difficult. Landstar has a Sitting Duck policy. If one of the 8,000 trucks in the fleet sees a truck parked on a shoulder, ramp or on a street and calls it in for the bounty, the offending driver is immediately terminated. While I agree mostly with the policy, there are many places where stopping on a shoulder or a ramp or legally parked on the street is a lesser evil than continuing to drive.
The conditions in BC are the worst for drivers that we’ve seen in three-and-half-years of driving 48 states and now four Canadian provinces. The truck route from the border at Sweetgrass, Montana to Edmonton has a few truck stops, a big Flying J and Road King in Calgary. But the Flying J is Red Deer has a dozen spots, the Flying J at Sherwood Park in Edmonton about 20 spots. Not nearly enough for the hundreds of trucks that run that route, where parking lots need space for 150+ trucks.
In the US, regulators, politicians and safety advocates are fixated on driving hours, the proposal under review is to decrease the allowable hours to drive in a day from 11 to ten. Truck drivers don’t like this because if the wheels ain’t turnin’ we ain’t earnin’. We are paid by the mile. Those who say they are concerned about safety want the reduction in driving hours because they feel sitting behind the wheel for that long must be intolerable. It’s not. What’s intolerable is knowing that you should, you must stop and you cannot. But they are silent on the other large issue that affects safety. Safe, accessible, places to park.
Dangerous situations develop when there is no place to stop, to safely park the rig out of traffic, to stretch, walk, pee, make a sandwich, rest. Those places are non-existant in BC, few and far between in other provinces and disappearing in the US.
While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working on new driving rules, it has said nothing about the lack of safe truck parking. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said nothing about the states who continue to eliminate Rest Areas, to close budget gaps, because they see them as tourist kiosks, not safe havens.
Just as they worry about safety, they are also increasing the danger. Politicians and regulators are allowing shippers and receivers to use longer, heavier trucks on certain highways and interstates in the US and Canada.
Shippers want greater profits, they claim longer, heavier trucks will ease congestion without affecting road surfaces and infrastructure. This is just not true. American and Canadian highways are dilapidated, disintegrating despite the amount of money being sunk into repairs.
We stopped in a Washington state Weigh Station and Rest Area and the parking space wasn’t big enough to take the tractor and 53 foot trailer. We saw long doubles on the Coquihalla Highway, tractors pulling two, TWO 53 foot trailers. Where does this driver stop and safely park off the roadway. Rest Areas in many states were built for 45 and 48 foot trailers. Park in a Service Plaza around Chicago and there’s barely enough room to navigate with a 53 foot trailer. Where are the drivers of these heavier longer trucks going to stop when they need to get off the road.
It’s time to expand the focus from just the drivers and include the shippers and receivers, the entities that make the largest profits. Why are shippers and receivers not required to provide parking for trucks? Few do.
Municipalities and cities in Canada and the US don’t want big trucks parked in their limits, some are downright truck unfriendly, such as Vancouver and Seattle, but they all want the jobs and the economic development that trucks bring.
MacGyver finally had to stop in Vernon, he could find no truck stop. He pulled into the WalMart parking lot — where unlike American WalMarts, which mostly accept, if not welcome truck drivers — and we slept next to the four foot by four foot sign that said ABSOLUTELY no overnight truck parking.
Cities do not allow office buildings and residential complexes to be built without sufficient parking. Why do City Fathers and Mothers allow shippers and receivers to build and use trucking facilities where there is barely enough room to swing and dock a 53 foot trailer and no place to park it. A distribution center with facilities to load and unload 500 trucks needs 50 overnight parking spaces with shore power, let’s do it right.
Some days I feel like the strongest woman truck driver in the world, holding the entire North American economy on my shoulders, left to survive by my wits, battling roads, traffic and weather, to follow the regulations, to be safe all while delivering my load on time. But I’m one driver.
MacGyver says it will make us think twice about returning to British Columbia with Black Beauty, but if I have any say, we won’t be back with her. BC is too dangerous.