Life on the real Highway Thru Hell

There were five highway closures caused by semis near Revelstoke last week. We talked to some truckers to get an idea of what's going on.

A tow truck removes a smashed semi from the Trans-Canada Highway following an accident last week.

Five highway closures in a week is a lot, even by Revelstoke standards. I talked to some truck drivers to get an idea of what was happening as winter hit the Trans-Canada Highway.

The snow started falling two weeks ago. Before that, the roads were relatively dry and the driving was easy — at least as far as the Trans-Canada in November goes.

Then the snow started and the accidents started to pile up — five major ones on the Trans-Canada Highway in the span of seven days, all the result of commercial tractor-trailers drivers losing control and crashing.

On Nov. 21 a semi caught a patch of slush at the side of the road and skidded out of control into an oncoming pickup west of Revelstoke. The lone occupant of the pickup was taken to hospital with minor injuries. The crash closed the highway for several hours.

That night, another crash happened on the highway west of town. This time a semi lost control and jackknifed across the highway, blocking both lanes. It took more than six hours for the highway to completely re-open.

Four hours after the highway re-opened, at around 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 22, another semi driver lost control, taking out a power pole before rolling over and blocking both lanes of traffic. It took most of the day to fix the power line and re-open the highway.

Then there was calm until late Monday, Nov. 24, at around 8:45 p.m. when a westbound tractor-trailer jackknifed across the highway. An eastbound semi smashed into him. The driver of the eastbound vehicle — Gary Michael Rivett, 53, of Ladysmith, B.C., died at the scene. The highway took 15 hours to re-open.

On Thursday, Nov. 27, there was another closure when a tractor-trailer jackknifed in Glacier National Park. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Then the skies cleared for the weekend and peace returned to the highway.

***

Crashes on the Trans-Canada Highway around Revelstoke in winter are as predictable as the snow. It’s not a matter of if, but when the first closure will happen and when someone will die. For many truck drivers, the stretch from the Skyline truck stop west of Revelstoke to Golden is the most treacherous in the country, with the heavy traffic, big snowfalls and winding roads built to 50-year-old standards.

“That corridor between you guys and Sicamous is ridiculous on its own,” Dan Dickey told me. “Now that the snow is flying, it’s just gotten worse.”

Dickey is a truck driver who runs the website BCTrucker.com. He frequently Tweets about highway issues and posts videos of bad drivers on his YouTube page.

He believes the increase in speed limits that took place earlier this year is the cause of the uptick in accidents. It’s something he predicted in an interview with the CBC in October and so far he says he’s right. “My contention was as soon as winter hits, it’s going to be a complete mess because people have no ability to control themselves,” he told me.

Gord Barr, who has been driving a truck from Kelowna to Golden for 18 years, agrees the speed limits are an issue. “They should have never done that. It’s OK in the summer time, spring and fall, but not now,” he said while taking a break at the rest stop near Revelstoke. “They should have varying speed limits so they can adjust it and people drive accordingly.”

When I reached Dickey last week, he was in Prince George, but a few nights earlier he had driven through Revelstoke on his way to Calgary. It was a period of calm in the midst of the chaos. He only drives this way if its absolutely necessary, he said.

“That section of highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border is probably one of the most dangerous highways as far as other motorists on the road and having to interact with them,” he said.

According to Dickey, people’s driving habits have gotten worse since the speed limit increases. “People don’t see it as a maximum speed limit. They see it as a target speed limit,” he said.

Because the speed limit is posted at 100 kilometres per hour, that’s the speed they’ll try to drive, even if the conditions are bad. Add in a snowy, slippery road, and you get what happened last week.

“People need to slow down and be careful and be patient and realize you’re not commuting. You’re traveling,” he said. “There’s a different mindset they need to have. They need to slow down, be aware of the people around them, respect the people around them and drive accordingly.”

***

Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Times Review

Clint Lenzi is the owner of Sure Haul Transportation.

Clint Lenzi has spent his life around the highways near Revelstoke. His father owned Sure-Haul Transportation and as a kid he would help out around the shop. Twenty-three years ago, at the age of 19, he got his Class One license and has been driving trucks ever since. He said he knows about a dozen people who have lost their lives on the Trans-Canada. He now runs Sure-Haul, with its fleet of 16 vehicles and 17 employees.

I spoke to Lenzi to get an idea about what was happening on the highway last week. Five closures in a week, all the result of crashes involving tractor-trailers, is a lot, even by Revelstoke standards. Or at least, so it seemed to me.

What was going on? Was it simply road conditions or was it the new, increased speed limits?

For Lenzi, the problems are numerous and include poor driver training, ill-equipped and improperly loaded trucks, slow snow clearing, and impatient drivers.

“It’s a lot of contributing factors, but our highway system is failing us,” he said bluntly at his office in the Big Eddy last week.

There’s no real starting point to the problem. It’s too easy to get a Class One drivers license, meaning lots of professional drivers are ill-prepared to handle the rigors of winter driving on the Trans-Canada Highway. “I think what our kids have to go through with graduated licensing is far more stringent than what you have to go through to get a class one,” said Lenzi.

It’s bad roads and bad road maintenance. Snow removal seems to take longer, he said, and there are sections of highway with cracks and compressions that create havoc for drivers. The dividing line between and eastbound and westbound lanes is invisible for half the year.

And there’s drivers who aren’t used to driving in the mountains. “There isn’t adequate training for that and there’s drivers out there, they don’t drive in the mountains a ton, and they get here, it’s snowing, it’s a bit of a crapshoot,” said Lenzi.

He’s not sure the new speed limits are the reason to blame for this winter’s bad start. As far as he’s concerned, speeders will speed no matter what the speed limit is. The problem is impatient drivers who are in a rush to get to their destination so they’re not paying enough attention to the road and their surroundings.

“I see so many things that happen just out of sheer impatience of being on a road that’s congested and following slower traffic,” he said. “We have a road that’s a recipe for disaster if you get impatient and you try to overtake a vehicle in the wrong location.”

***

Are increased speed limits the issue? Staff-Sgt. Kurt Grabinsky of the Revelstoke RCMP wouldn’t come straight out and say it because of the politics of the issue. “As much as I like to think if we had slower speeds people would drive better, I think it’s just the road is very busy, it gets busier all the time and there’s very little improvement done to it.”

Louise Yako, the president of the BC Trucking Association, also isn’t sure about the speed factor. She said most trucking companies said it wouldn’t effect them because of their company policies or equipment.

According to the BC Ministry of Transportation, accidents result in an average of 120 hours of closures per year between Sicamous and Golden (avalanche control adds another 140 hours).

The ministry said they are collecting data on sections of highway where the speed limits were increased but that it is too early to see if there’s any relationship between the increased speed limits and highway crashes.

***

Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Times Review

The rest stop just west of Revelstoke was a busy place on Thursday as truck drivers took a break following a sluggish drive through Rogers Pass.

The BC Trucking Association represents the interests of commercial truckers. Louise Yako said they’ve been working on three issues to make life easier, or at least more predictable for highway truckers. The first was better information sharing through DriveBC. The second was better communication during avalanche control.

The third, which is still being worked on, is the “development of highway winter maintenance standards for high mountain passes.”

While standards do exist for snow removal, “All we’re saying is it might make sense to have a more aggressive standard for high mountain passes. It might not, but that’s something that should be explored,” said Yako.

They are also pushing for mandated speed governors and a professional truck driver training standard.

“There are many qualified, skilled drivers out there but this would raise the floor for drivers who aren’t as skilled because they haven’t been trained properly,” said Yako. “Right now there is no minimum training standard for commercial drivers.”

***

Clint Lenzi has never bothered to sit down to figure out what highway closures cost Sure Haul. A closure might bump work back several hours, or a day. It might cost him a customer who won’t hire him for a job out of fear they’ll get stuck in Revelstoke and won’t make it.

“It will probably sadden me to find out what the cost is,” he said.

He sees several solutions to make the highways safer around Revelstoke. One is better snow clearing. Another is higher driver training standard. A third is improved bidding processes so trucking companies can’t undercut each other and they can actually make money to buy better equipment and pay their drivers more.

“Trucking is a tough racket,” he said. “If I can buy cheap Chinese tires at $300 or Michelin at $600, you tell me what I’m buying? I’m buying Chinese tires because that’s what I can afford.”

Most importantly is twinning and dividing the highway to prevent head-on collisions.

“Let’s give the public the opportunity to be in the slow lane or the fast lane. Let fast drivers go fast, let them crash,” he said.  “Let’s stop killing innocent people who are in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”

 

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