A troubling spike in collisions by municipal garbage trucks and plows has downgraded the city’s provincial safety rating — and even threatens its legal ability to put those vehicles on the road.
Hamilton’s roughly 400 “commercial” vehicles — those weighing more than 4,500 kilograms, but excluding transit and emergency services — were involved in 120 collisions and 29 convictions over the past two years, according to Ministry of Transportation data.
That’s left the city with a “conditional” provincial safety rating and a violation rate of 87.4 per cent — one of the highest rates among Ontario municipalities. The problems have spurred a warning letter, safety rating downgrade and Feb. 11 meeting with the ministry.
The province considers 35 per cent or less to be “satisfactory,” while violation rates approaching 100 per cent can spur sanctions as severe as forcing an operator to park its fleet.
“It’s a high violation rate,” acknowledged Geoff Lupton, director of energy, fleet and traffic, who said the majority of collisions come from garbage trucks and plows. “I wouldn’t say we’re unsafe; I’d say we’ve had too many incidents and we’re working to address that.”
Public works chair Coun. Sam Merulla called the city’s record “unacceptable,” but added he’s confident in the city’s new plan to tackle the troubling trend.
The plan started last fall when the city formed a committee to tackle the issue and now includes a revamp of Hamilton’s driver safety manual. Lupton said a driving trainer has been working with waste collectors since January and three yet-to-be hired trainers will soon be “embedded” in the roads department. Meetings with drivers are also being held at various public works yards.
Lupton also noted many city vehicle collisions are weather-related — for example, plows clipping cars in storms, or garbage trucks reversing in snow-choked side streets. “A lot of our (staff) are out there in the absolute worst conditions,” he said. “We’ll always have accidents, but we definitely need to make sure there are as few as possible.”
The HSR fleet is evaluated separately and has a violation rate of 47.2 per cent based on 379 collisions, 24 convictions and 65 inspections for 224 buses. So far, it has kept a “satisfactory” provincial safety rating. There is “room for improvement,” said new HSR director Dave Dixon, but he added at the moment he thinks the trend is headed in the right direction.
A high safety violation rate is “a big red flag” for operators, said local transportation insurance broker Lisa Arseneau, adding she encourages her clients to keep the violation rate at 20 per cent or lower. At the same time, she noted the statistic is only one of several factors considered by the insurance industry in setting policy rates.
A 2013 audit by the City of Guelph compared the violation ratings of 24 unnamed Ontario cities — and only one was higher than Hamilton’s current rating of 87.4 per cent. That audit was prompted by a warning letter from the province that scolded Guelph for a violation rate of 38.5 per cent, by comparison.
Arseneau also said it’s not necessarily fair to evaluate the record of an operator without more details about the severity of collisions and individual driver records. “Many of those collisions are probably scraped fenders or climbing a curb and bumping a stop sign,” she said.
All operators of commercial vehicles, including individual drivers, companies and cities, require a provincial Commercial Vehicle Operator’s Registration. All are rated from excellent to unsatisfactory based on a formula that weighs collisions, convictions and inspection results.
A violation rate over 35 per cent typically spurs a warning letter, while hitting 85 per cent triggers an audit and interview with the ministry. At 100 per cent, the province can impose sanctions that range from forcing an operator to temporarily park its fleet to outright loss of an operating certificate.
Lupton said he’s confident the city doesn’t face any imminent sanctions based on a February interview with the province, which he said has given Hamilton time to implement measures to improve safety.
Spokesperson Bob Nichols confirmed by email the ministry is monitoring Hamilton’s progress but is “committed to working with them to achieve compliance.”
In the meantime, cities and some industry associations are lobbying the province to change the way it rates short-haul commercial vehicles.
In a December letter, the Ontario Waste Management Association said the current rating system — implemented in 2007 — unfairly “penalizes” fleets operating on cramped city streets as opposed to long-haul trucks on highways.
Snow plows, garbage trucks and buses “operate in busy traffic all day long in heavily commercialized and dense urban areas … in and out of traffic,” wrote policy director Peter Hargreave in arguing against using commercial safety ratings to disqualify companies from bidding on contracts.
Lupton said Hamilton and other cities support tweaking the system to acknowledge those “inequities,” but added he’s not aware of any pending provincial changes.
CVOR safety statistics
City of Hamilton
Time frame: Feb. 2013 to Feb. 2015
Kilometres: 5.5 million
Violation rate: 87.4 per cent
Safety rating: conditional
Total collisions: 120 (42 with points)
Time frame: Feb. 2013 to Feb. 2015
Fleet: 224 buses
Kilometres: 15.7 million
Violation rate: 47.2 per cent
Safety rating: satisfactory (unaudited)
Collisions: 379 (65 with points)
Source: The Hamilton Spectator