The death of a 65-year-old motorcyclist after a loaded logging truck lost its load last week was a horrific tragedy. It was also the worst fear of every rural B.C. resident.
Logging trucks are a fact of life in this province, a sign of prosperity in many ways, but there’s no denying that they’re an uncomfortable companion on the highway. I know they make me nervous. They’re just too big, too fast, too loaded down with logs to seem safe. They bounce, they jostle, the logs sway and the trucks lean, each weighed down with up to 72 metric tonnes of wood — the weight of 10 elephants.
Drivers floor it up hills, use their air brakes heading down the other side and in my experience will pass any vehicle that’s not already pushing the speed limit. They’re always in a hurry because time is literally money in their industry.
If you’ve ever been passed by a logging truck on a bicycle it’s a harrowing experience. The vortexes of wind kicked up first threaten to pull you into the tires, then blast you in the other direction as it passes by. I’ve been hit with pieces of sloughed off tree bark and saw a pebble shoot out from under a tire with enough force to break a headlight.
But for all my fears, logging trucks will likely always be here. Forestry is a $13 billion industry in this province, and it’s a significant contributor to our financial wellbeing.
That said, the forest industry is not the boon it once was to small, rural towns across the province. Through free trade pressures, the conglomeration of companies and tenures, increased global competition, issues like pine beetle kill and fluctuations in demand, we’ve seen mills of all types close from one end of the province to the other. Long gone are the rules that ensured a certain quantity of the wood was kept in the communities where it was cut to create more jobs, a sacrifice to please the gods of global trade.
The result? More logs are exported, and logs have to travel further than they did in the past — instead of being processed and loaded onto train cars as some type of finished product. That means more trucks, more logs on the road and more opportunities for a tragedy like the one that occurred in Whistler.
The big question is, what can we do about it? The industry is vitally important to us. We live along a main road that connects logging operations to sorting yards, mills and ports in the Lower Mainland. And if you did add up the number of highway hours and divide those by the number of incidents, the industry is probably reasonably safe compared to normal traffic — even if the consequences of accidents can sometimes be greater.
That said, there are some things we should be doing. Weigh stations are one way to ensure that trucks aren’t overloaded. Cameras at weigh stations could watch for overheight loads. Each truck could also be equipped with a GPS “black box” that could be monitored remotely to ensure that drivers are obeying speed limits (not a factor in this accident) and aren’t going over industry regulations in terms of shift lengths. If someone has a complaint about a truck, then the province should be able to identify which vehicle was responsible based on the time and place of the complaint.
Vehicles are already inspected, but maybe more could be done there as well.
Unfortunately I don’t think much can be done about the current business model, where drivers get paid by weight: the more logs and more loads you carry, the more money you can make in a day. Maybe there’s potential to force logging companies, even if they’re exporters, to start hiring drivers again and to pay them by the hour instead of by the pound. Maybe the economics have to change so drivers get more for their loads, but are restricted by how many loads they can deliver in a day. Maybe trailers should be smaller.
The provincial government has a pretty good record when it comes to safety, investing in infrastructure, changing drunk driving laws, and so on. Let’s hope they take this issue equally seriously. One dead motorcyclist is already too many.
— Andrew Mitchell