As one of Canada’s most closely followed truck-crash trials drew nearly to a close during the last week of January, we finally learned what happened at a cold crossroads near Tisdale, Saskatchewan, last April. Sixteen lives were snuffed out, 13 people were badly injured, and the expected arc of dozens of families was irrevocably knocked off kilter by a truck careening through a stop sign and being struck by a bus.
As part of the pre-sentencing process, five days had been set aside that week so the court could hear the victim impact statements and the results of the investigation could be revealed. The case will conclude on March 22, when the driver, 30-year-old Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, finally learns his fate.
The bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team was traveling northbound on Highway 35 when it T-boned a B-train tractor-trailer loaded with bales of peat moss. The truck was heading westbound on a side road near the town of Tisdale, about 300 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border with North Dakota.
According to investigators, the truck ran a stop sign at about 50 mph and was about halfway across the intersection when the bus plowed into the side of the lead trailer. The bus driver saw the truck and hit the brakes hard enough to skid the tires but struck the truck anyway, knocking it nearly 90 degrees off course and scattering bales of peat moss across an open field. The front of the bus was demolished, the roof was ripped off, and the bus was spun around 180 degrees by the force of the collision.
Fourteen people died at the scene and two more succumbed to their injuries in the hospital. Most of the dead were players on the team, aged 16-21, but also included the team's coach, an athletic therapist, two employees of a radio station, and the bus driver. Sidhu escaped uninjured.
Investigators remained tight-lipped about the circumstances behind the crash until Sidhu first appeared in court on Jan. 8. In an agreed statement of facts, Sidhu pleaded guilty to 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. During that hearing, it was revealed that Sidhu was neither impaired by drugs or alcohol nor distracted by a cell phone or some other device in the cab.
Published reports indicate Sidhu was stressing over the billowing tarps on his load of peat moss bales and was concerned they posed a hazard to drivers in oncoming traffic. So focused was he on that hazard that he failed to notice several warning signs and an oversized, lighted stop sign as he approached the intersection.
Reports say he had stopped and adjusted his tarps just 15 minutes earlier. The paper quotes Sidhu’s lawyer, Mark Brayford, saying his client was completely distracted by the flapping tarp.
In a prepared statement read by his lawyer, Sidhu said, “I just want to plead guilty. I don't want [a] plea bargain, I don't want a trial. ... I don't want to make things any worse. I can’t make things any better, but I certainly won't want to make them worse by having a trial.”
Then, speaking on Jan. 31, the final day of his sentencing hearing after listening to nearly 100 victim impact statements over the preceding four days, Sidhu himself addressed the court, saying he takes full responsibility for what has happened. “It happened because of my lack of experience,” he said.
“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,” Sidhu said, leaning on a wooden desk with balled-up fists and looking down as he struggled to speak. “I am so, so, so, so, so sorry about this pain,” reported the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper.
Sidhu talked about hearing “kids crying” when he emerged from his truck after the collision, not knowing what had happened. Then he saw the bus, the paper notes. We can only imagine what must have gone through his mind at that moment.
There was a man standing before a crowd of angry and confused and even sympathetic people, facing the worst situation most of us could ever imagine. He had honorably already pleaded guilty to all the charges against him. Now he was admitting to the families and friends of the victims what had happened that day. It’s what everyone had waited to hear. How he managed to get the words out, I'll never know. It would have taken enormous strength to do that.
You can read the whole story here. It's respectfully written and captures the spirit of those last moments of the trial.
The 30th Victim
As tragic and life-altering as that crash was, I think Sidhu himself is the other tragedy in this story. He certainly did not set out that day to hurt anyone. No driver does. There was no evidence of outright negligence presented in the accident report. But his inexperience was glaringly obvious. Because of his admitted lack of experience, the errors piled up and eventually buried him. His lawyer said he was worried about the impact his billowing tarps may have had on other drivers. As odd as it sounds, his concern seemed to be for their safety, but we know where that brought him.
How many other drivers, preoccupied with a problem, have found themselves overly focused on it to the detriment of other developing problems? I think few of us could claim a career free of moments like that.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend driving past several warning signs and eventually through an over-sized and lighted stop sign, but that’s what can happen when you are fixated on a single problem. There are plenty of examples from aviation where pilots overlook warnings of a deteriorating situation because they are focused on solving another problem.
But Sidhu was sunk long before that happened. The sad part is how the industry let him down. The narrative of this story doesn’t read like he worked for a supportive company that would have provided the training he needed to tarp a load properly or even fill out his log book.
It was reported earlier in the sentencing hearing that his logbook and vehicle inspection reports – three weeks’ worth – contained 70 errors. I call them errors; the officials call them violations. You can read the reports here. They are mostly technical in nature: failing to indicate the time and place of a duty status change, failing to note the location of the start of the day, failing to complete the reports, pre-signing the log before the shift had begun …
These were not the sort of violations we’d see from someone trying to beat the system for his own gain. It appears to me that he simply had no idea what he was doing. (From what can be determined from his travel and his log entries, nothing suggests that he was excessively tired or sleepy at the time of the crash.)
We do not know much about his driving background except that he took a week-long truck driver training course in August 2017, was tested, passed, and granted his CDL. He then left Canada for India, his native country, to get married and returned to Canada in March 2018, where he was hired by Calgary, Alberta-based Adesh Deol Trucking three weeks before the crash. Reports say he had run for two weeks with another driver; the week of the crash was his first week on his own.
We don’t know where he was trained, who passed him for his driving test, or even how good a driver (steering and gearing) he was. Nothing in what happened suggests he lacked basic driving skills, but he almost certainly was never coached in the myriad other duties a driver is supposed to fulfill.
I’m sure many drivers have found themselves in over their heads a few times in their careers: driving in New York City for the first time, the first trip down Donner Pass, a heavy cargo that had to be loaded just right to keep the axle weights legal …
Learning how to be a professional driver is scary as hell, and it’s much worse when you don’t have a supportive company behind you. Sidhu faced all those challenges on his own. Eventually overwhelmed him.
As a former rookie driver, those days now some 40 years past, I can still remember the terror I felt pulling A-train tankers through winter storms in northern Ontario. Fortunately for me, older drivers back then were willing to coach and cajole me into getting the job done without hurting anyone.
Sadly, it doesn't seem to work that way anymore. We deride new drivers as inexperienced (ya think?), unthoughtful, and even stupid. We let them struggle while shooting videos of them trying to back up to be posted on social media, rather than getting out to offer help. Maybe the newbies are just too self-conscious to ask questions?
How Sidhu came to be piloting a 140,000-pound B-train combination with three weeks of experience is a conundrum, yet there are no regulations or requirements that say you need a certain amount of experience before you do. In fact, B-trains are a common piece of equipment in western Canada, so it’s not that much of a stretch that he would be pulling one, but so soon after getting his license?
He should never have been placed in that position, but his employer apparently didn't think it was a problem. After offering insufficient training and failing to monitor his drivers' hours-of-service compliance, the owner of Adesh Deol Trucking, Sukhmander Singh, now faces eight charges of not complying with federal and provincial safety regulations. These include two counts of failing to maintain HOS logs, three counts of failing to monitor the compliance of a driver, and two counts of having more than one log for a given day. The final charge is under provincial regulations for failure to possess or follow a written safety program. He will pay for his indiscretions, but not so dearly as his driver will.
We Need to Treat New Drivers Better
If many of today’s new drivers lack basic skills, it’s not because they are stupid or ignorant. It's because they were never taught properly, or didn’t have willing mentors and coaches to help them learn. Or they wind up working for companies that see them as exploitable because they have little experience and few prospects of getting hired by a bigger and better company. So desperate for drivers are carriers today that anyone who can fog up a mirror can get a job, or so the old expression goes. Perhaps Sidhu should never have taken the job, but how many new drivers would have the conviction to say no to their first job offer because it was more than they felt they could handle?
The collateral consequences were orders of magnitude beyond the severity of the mistakes he made that day. Who hasn’t run a stop sign or had a tarp come unraveled? It was cosmically poor timing that a bus with a hockey team from a town where almost everyone knew someone on the bus should be in exactly the same place at the same time. Running a stop sign normally results in a traffic citation, but in the words of the prosecutor, this event turned criminal when Sidhu ignored the warning signs.
We could debate whether he ignored them or was oblivious to them, but that won;t undo what happened. Sidhu seems resigned to the fact that he will be spending some time in prison and will likely be deported from Canada upon his release. That's a pretty steep price to pay for wanting to become a truck driver and getting little or no support along the way.
This case shouldn’t end with the passing of a sentence.
We should be looking very closely at how the industry and regulators let this new driver down by not providing adequate training and oversight, by allowing him to operate an advanced vehicle with no experience, and by leading him to believe he could do so. I doubt Sidhu will ever drive again, but there was a time when he wanted to. If we’re going to resolve the labor crisis we face in trucking, we have got to stop eating our young.