When you’re crossing a street or riding a bike alongside a big truck in Burnaby, it’s comforting to know there are laws in B.C. saying those multi-ton vehicles should have proper brakes and loads that won't fly off and hit you and that drivers should be trained to operate the big machines.
But does that mean the thousands of trucks and truck drivers making their way through the city every day actually are safe?
According to RCMP Const. Kevin Connolly, more than half the trucks pulled over by police in the city aren’t fit to stay on the road, and the problem appears to be worse in Burnaby than in other Lower Mainland cities.
In 2020, 62% of vehicles inspected in Burnaby were taken out of service compared to 52% across the Lower Mainland.
‘Very, very concerning numbers’
Connolly has seen it all – drivers with learner’s licences operating big commercial vehicles, a truck towing a fume-filled trailer with uncapped jerry cans of gasoline sloshing around in it, a flatbed truck hauling a large piece of unsecured sheet metal ready to fly off around a corner, trucks with wobbly tires, trucks with unsecured cargo that could shift and flip the vehicle onto whoever happens to be beside it, trucks on steep hills (like Royal Oak Avenue and Cariboo Road) where they’re not supposed to be, truckers that keep getting caught on their cell phones, big trucks with air brakes that don’t work.
“There are times that I’ll be under there and I’ll ask them to hit the brake and the brakes don’t even activate, period; there is no movement in the brake pads, nothing,” Connolly said.
Connolly, a member of Burnaby RCMP’s traffic enforcement unit, has become the detachment’s resident expert in commercial vehicle safety since training to become a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) inspector in 2019.
He said he started methodically tracking statistics from his enforcement activities when he saw how little information there was about commercial vehicle safety in B.C. compared to the U.S.
“It became clear from the statistics I was obtaining that it was a concern, that there was very, very concerning numbers that we were seeing,” he said.
No dedicated unit
The city’s public safety committee started hearing about Connolly’s work in May 2019 in quarterly police reports, and Connolly himself has given two presentations.
The committee routinely hears that more than half the vehicles checked in the city during commercial vehicle enforcement blitzes are taken off the road.
Yet the issue of commercial vehicle safety is not mentioned at all in the city’s 2020 Community Safety Plan or its July 2021 draft Transportation Plan.
Public safety director Dave Critchley said the Community Safety Plan “is not intended to capture all of the various initiatives/concerns of each Dept they are currently working on,” but the city is reviewing the plan, and commercial vehicles “have been raised as part of that discussion.”
A #BurnabyFrontline officer observed this 🚚⬇️ come off Hwy 1 with its hazard lights on. The subsequent traffic stop finds⬇️— Burnaby RCMP (@BurnabyRCMP) July 24, 2021
-No working brake lights, turn signals or headlights
-Dangerous Goods not secured properly
2 VT's issued and the 🚚 was placed out of service #CMVSafety pic.twitter.com/1a1esFlRyq
Connolly would like to see Burnaby RCMP establish a dedicated commercial vehicle unit as other Metro Vancouver police agencies, like Vancouver, Delta and New Westminster, have.
He said police agencies have created the specialized units because Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement, the provincial agency responsible for commercial vehicle enforcement isn’t adequately resourced to do the job
The B.C. General Employees Union, which represents 185 members at CVSE, also told the NOW the agency is understaffed.
More trucks, fewer inspectors
But the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said CVSE “continues to be a robust and resilient organization.”
“CVSE is active in all areas of the province, providing education and enforcement programs aimed at continually improving safety of commercial vehicles on B.C. highways, as well as progressing economic viability of the industry,” stated an email from the ministry.
But staffing at the agency hasn't kept up with an increase in truck traffic in the province.
According to ICBC, there were 49,130 heavy trucks (11,795 kilograms or heavier) registered in the province in 2003; in 2020, there were 68,000 – a 38% increase.
There were also 120,000 lower weight commercial vehicles (between 5,000 to 11,794 kilograms) registered in the province last year.
But there are actually 39 fewer inspectors today than there were in 2003.
And the number of inspections conducted by the agency has dropped too from 26,635 in 2003 to 24,161 in 2019/2020.
(COVID “will have had some impact” on the latest 2019/2020 inspection numbers, the ministry said.)
For local Mounties to pick up the slack with a dedicated commercial vehicle unit would take a “significant amount of training and experience,” according to Critchley, and he said it’s up to the local detachment to “determine the operational deployment of their resources."
After months of training in 2019, Connolly is currently the only local Mountie qualified to do level 1 CVSA inspections, but he has been training his fellow traffic unit officers to perform level 2 checks.
“It does everything I do except crawl under the truck and start looking at the stuff underneath, the transmission, the drive line, the brakes,” he said.
Over the last few years, traffic sections around the region have also gotten together for commercial vehicle enforcement blitzes in each other’s jurisdictions.
Since commercial vehicle safety is a regional issue, that approach just makes sense to Connolly.
“That truck, maybe it’s coming from Abbotsford and it’s going through to Vancouver, and, if those problems are there, well, then it’s a danger the entire way,” he said.
Burnaby’s location, right in the middle of the Lower Mainland, may be the reason the number of trucks taken off the road here was about 10% higher than in other cities in the region, according to Connolly.
Burnaby RCMP hasn’t “ruled out” a specialized commercial vehicle unit in the future, according to a statement from the detachment, but its focus is currently on supporting Connolly’s training work with other officers and his collaborations with other Lower Mainland police agencies.
“The current system allows our traffic unit to balance (commercial vehicle enforcement) with other priority duties, such as speed, impaired driving, and distracted driving enforcement,” read the statement.