OTTAWA – Truckers hauling explosive or flammable loads have killed and badly injured people after getting drunk or stoned behind the wheel, an analysis by The Canadian Press has found.
Government crash reports reveal that thousands of people who transport dangerous cargo put themselves — and others — at even greater risk by driving while impaired and not taking enough care on Canada’s roads and rails.
These accidents are few compared to the many millions of safe shipments of dangerous goods in Canada every year. But they raise questions about why some drivers handling such hazardous cargo don’t always take the greatest possible care.
The information has been kept in a database of reported accidents involving the transport of dangerous goods, such as explosives, liquids and gases, poisonous and infectious substances, or radioactive materials.
Government officials record accidents in the Dangerous Goods Accident Information System when a spill or leak poses a danger to human health, property or the environment.
The Canadian Press obtained the database under the Access to Information Act.
An analysis found sleeping drivers, carelessness and negligence, speeding and handling cargo the wrong way are just some of the many reasons — besides drugs or booze — for thousands of crashes in the last 20 years.
The chief underlying factor in all accidents was the people involved. Over half of the database’s 20,000 entries list “human” error as a factor. That’s three times more than the runner-up, “equipment.”
Leading causes of accidents were: Improperly loading, unloading and handling dangerous cargo, with 2,571 entries; drivers losing control of their vehicles, with 1,950 entries; and carelessness and negligence, with 1,746.
Impaired drivers caused 21 accidents and another 83 happened because drivers fell asleep at the wheel.
Those two factors combined with tragic consequences in April 1997 on a northwest Alberta highway. Crash reports say the driver of a pickup truck carrying diesel tanks fell asleep — a fatality inquiry later heard he was drunk — and hit a Greyhound bus head on. The passengers were drenched in fuel when the bus caught fire.
The crash killed the truck driver instantly, and the bus driver and a passenger died in the fire. Twenty-seven people suffered burns and other injuries. Three passengers later received medals of bravery from the Canadian government for helping people flee the flaming bus.
In another impaired-driving accident, a truck carrying radioactive materials ran off the road and overturned in southeast Saskatchewan in January 1992. The crash report says the truck “was a complete writeoff” but the radioactive source remained sealed. No one was injured.
Transportation law in the United States requires drug and alcohol testing of all employees in safety-sensitive jobs in aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit, pipelines and other industries.
Even Canadian workers who bring goods into the U.S. must follow Department of Transportation regulations — including drug and alcohol tests.
Canada has no such drug- and alcohol-testing requirement. The head of a trucking association said the industry would welcome such testing.
“Drug and alcohol testing, as an industry we didn’t have an issue with it — nor do we have it today,” said Bob Dolyniuk, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association.
“We don’t need people under the influence or people using illegal drugs or prescription drugs inappropriately operating our vehicles on the roadway.”
No one from Transport Canada was available for an interview.
Speeding caused another 162 crashes. Bad driving — including improper turns, not signalling, tailgating and ignoring stop signs and traffic lights — was to blame for 226 accidents.
Dolyniuk doubted workers were being careless.”If I’m handling dangerous goods and there’s a risk to me … I would find it a hard stretch that I would be careless with that product.”
Dolyniuk also pointed out the majority of dangerous-goods accidents were minor. Indeed, four out of every five accidents recorded in the database fell within the lowest levels on a 10-point severity scale.
By Steve Rennie, The Canadian Press.