Truck driver isn’t the only one at fault in Humboldt tragedy

Government and industry must accept their share of blame for the catastrophic collision
Photo: Andrew Scheer / Flickr
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Few of us will ever grasp the level of pain and trauma that the loved ones of Humboldt Broncos players and staff have experienced since Apr. 8, 2018, when a catastrophic collision between a bus and freight truck in rural Saskatchewan killed 16 people and injured another 13.

So many young lives were stolen, far too soon. Those who survived are dealing with lifelong disabilities, injuries and mental trauma. Some are still hospitalized. Such disasters impact small towns like Humboldt — population 5,869 — with disproportionate force. It will likely take decades for the community to heal.

But this calamity is not the fault of truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu alone.

Yes, Sidhu was at the wheel when the semi truck carrying peat moss ran the oversized stop sign, ignoring a series of glaring warnings ahead of the intersection. That’s clearly why the now 30-year-old pled guilty in early January to all 29 counts of dangerous driving, for which Crown prosecutors are seeking a 10-year prison sentence (the judge’s decision is expected to be released on March 22).

Sidhu was undertrained, overworked, and placed under exceptional pressure.

But the Humboldt crash was the result of much more than that catastrophic momentary lapse. Far more to blame is a combination of massive regulatory failures, infrastructure neglect, and the all-consuming capitalist imperative to maximize profits with higher speeds, longer shifts, and less training.

The public knee-jerk desire to incarcerate him — which will likely lead to his eventual deportation after he serves his sentence — does absolutely nothing to address that reality or protect youth in the future. Rather, it points to the deeply unhelpful reality of our culture’s obsession with carceral punishment of individual offenders, especially people of colour, leaving the true culprits unscathed.

‘I am so, so, so, so, so sorry about this pain’

Sidhu received a trucking licence in August 2017 and started working for Adesh Deol Trucking in March 2018, just after getting married in India.

That was a mere three weeks before the Humboldt crash. His lawyer has admitted Sidhu had a “complete absence of prior driving skill.” Sidhu got lost the day before the crash and was also anxious about a loose tarp covering the peat moss that he’d already pulled over once to try to secure, said the lawyer.

A dire absence of regulatory oversight or inspections allowed Sidhu to continue driving despite major errors.

A report by the Saskatchewan government said that Sidhu had violated 70 trucking regulations and inspection rules. If he had been inspected on the day of the crash, the report concluded, he would have been placed under an immediate 72-hour suspension.

Only a few days prior to the crash, an accurate documentation of his hours would have resulted in a violation of the “maximum on-duty of 14 hours for the day.”

Sidhu was undertrained, overworked, and placed under exceptional pressure after getting lost and having to deal with an errant tarp. A dire absence of regulatory oversight or inspections allowed him to continue driving despite major errors.

These facts are not recited to absolve him of any responsibility. They appear to be very necessary pieces of context given that parents of the victims have publicly described Sidhu as an “arrogant, inconsiderate monster” who “decided to play God and drive through a stop sign,” telling him that his “senseless lack of care has changed everything.”

Sidhu is the only person facing criminal charges. A sentence over six months will almost certainly guarantee deportation back to India once he is released, despite his obvious remorse.

“I can’t even imagine what you are going through, what you have been through. I’ve taken the most valuable things of your life. I am so, so, so, so, so sorry about this pain,” Sidhu recently told the families.

Meanwhile, our governments are absolved from almost all responsibility, and the company owner faces only a handful of potential fines. The legal and moral responsibility has been entirely downloaded on to a single worker.

Compounding failures

A similar situation just a few years ago left almost 50 people dead.

In the summer of 2013, a freight train transporting non-stabilized Bakken crude oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic, a town in rural Quebec. In declaring bankruptcy, the company avoided prosecution. Three workers took the blame, including an engineer who was dangerously overworked and the only crew member when parking the train.

While the workers were found not guilty of criminal negligence in 2018, the legal maneuvering meant that owners and regulators didn’t have to face any repercussions.

It’s a textbook capitalist strategy. A 2013 academic article by scholar Ryan Katz-Rosene observed that trucking in Canada operates in a “highly neoliberalized setting” that relies on governments not implementing “hard cap” regulations that impede capital accumulation.

In both cases — Lac-Mégantic and Humboldt — disasters could have easily been avoided.

Here are just three of the critical failures in the Humboldt situation, which had nothing to do with Sidhu.

  1. Roundabouts and other road safety infrastructure: According to the Transportation Research Board, highway roundabouts cut deaths by 90 per cent, injuries by 80 per cent and collisions by 40 per cent. As automotive journalist Jim Kenzie put it, “you simply cannot have a T-bone crash at a roundabout.” A report on a 1997 crash at the exact same intersection, which killed six members of the same family, recommended the installation of rumble strips and other warning devices, which the government rejected.

  2. Seatbelt regulations: CBC’s The Fifth Estate acquired documents in late 2018 revealing that Transport Canada had advised implementing seatbelts in coach buses way back in 2001. The government of the day ignored the recommendation. Motor Coach Canada had for years lobbied for the regulatory change, describing it as an “extremely important safety issue.” Federal transport minister Marc Garneau has promised to impose seat belt rules by 2020.

  3. Training and log-keeping: Singh was extremely ill-equipped to be on the roads. “He probably didn’t even know what his responsibilities were. Somehow the system allowed for that,” said Scott Thomas, a parent of one of the players who died in the crash. Sukhmander Singh, owner of the trucking company, currently faces eight counts of failing to comply with safety and log-keeping regulations. In late January, transportation ministers across the country agreed to implement a national training standard for freight drivers.

A government-commissioned study identified 13 improvements needed for the intersection where the crash occurred, including the removal of trees on nearby private property that impede sight, the installation of rumble strips, and the widening of highway shoulders. Or, as economist Jim Stanford recently advised on Twitter, “Treat truck driving like a high-value essential public service, with training, strong regulation, safe hours, and a living wage-rather than seeing drivers as a cheap, flexible ‘productive input.’”

The loss of unions in trucking has also severely impacted safety and wellness for workers. “The capitalist dream for truck drivers has become a living nightmare,” noted a July 2018 article from Fightback.

Yet the government will not face any consequences for failing to address these issues ahead of time. As the families and surviving players continue to grieve, only Sidhu will pay the price, via incarceration, mental and spiritual anguish, and likely deportation.

“It’s a mistake the trucking industry is not held to a higher standard across the country and our federal and provincial governments aren’t jumping all over this to change laws in a much more significant way,” said Celeste Leicht, parent of a 19-year-old victim in the crash, in the sentencing hearing.

It’s not just a problem with trucking.

Saskatchewan has the highest per-capita traffic fatality rate in the country: 10.9 people per 100,000 in 2016, compared to the national average of 5.2. There are many factors behind such a devastatingly high number, but the dire lack of urban and intercity public transportation certainly plays a major role.

That situation was made far worse recently with the provincial government’s shuttering of the 70-year-old Crown corporation Saskatchewan Transportation Company, combined with Greyhound pulling out of Western Canada.

The pitiful lack of dependable and affordable passenger rail service in Canada only compounds this issue, to say nothing of the potential for getting a good portion of semi-trucks off the road with public funding for electrified freight trains and tracks.

The crash was a product of an almost innumerable number of factors spanning decades worth of policy decisions. Yet all the blame falls on Sidhu.

‘They seek vengeance’

The racial politics of this situation also can’t be ignored.

As Abdullah Shihipar observed on Twitter: “I have a hard time believing that if the driver was a white trucker that there would be such venom in these statements, that the crown would be pushing for ten years. this was an accident and they seek vengeance.”

The victims and families of the victims are almost exclusively white. While clearly that doesn’t diminish the suffering they have experienced, it must inform how we think about such traumas, particularly given the lack of public response to the suicide crisis among Indigenous youth, the recent murder of Colten Boushie by farmer Gerald Stanley in rural Saskatchewan, and the regular deaths of Black and Indigenous people at the hands of police.

Journalist and activist Nora Loreto was slammed with months’ worth of death threats and harassment for observing on Twitter that “the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role” in the generous fundraising for the families of victims (raising $15.2 million, the campaign was the second largest on GoFundMe in 2017).

This situation takes on particular urgency given the prospect of Sidhu’s deportation once he is released from prison. It’s not a situation where someone makes a serious mistake, admits wrongdoing, and seeks reconciliation with families and society in subsequent years. Instead, it’s a dismally cruel and banal process: entirely vindictive and unforgiving.

We can’t bring back the 16 people who were killed on April 8, 2018. But we can fight to ensure their lives are genuinely honoured, and that Sidhu — and far more importantly, the state and trucking company owner — take responsibility and make amends. That means collectively demanding a less carceral and more restorative process: one that centres reconciliation, regulatory improvements, and far better training to ensure a devastating crash like this never occurs again.

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