EVERY DAY, HUNDREDS OF LOCAL 66 and 402 members in British Columbia put their lives on the line driving on some of the most dangerous highways in North America. High mountain roads like the Coquihalla, the Kootenay Pass (Salmo-Creston), Taylor Hill, Rogers Pass, Allison Pass, Sunday Summit, and the Kicking Horse Pass are known around the world.
Discovery Canada channel’s popular program Highway Thru Hell depicts what it’s like to travel the Coquihalla Highway—one of the most difficult routes of them all. It takes nerves of steel, a clear head, and years of experience to safely haul loads weighing tens of thousands of pounds.
But it’s during the winter months that these professional drivers are really put to the test. BC’s highways can become treacherous within minutes when temperatures drop. The weather at the bottom of a hill can be completely different than at the top.
Freezing rain, common in parts of the province, is the ultimate scourge. Making things even more unpredictable, highway maintenance can vary greatly, depending on which community you’re passing through.
In support of Local 66 and 402 members, CLAC has lobbied the BC government about the lack of standards for highway maintenance throughout the province. Currently, private contractors in 28 different service areas are responsible to keep BC’s highways safe for travel during the harsh winter months. But the degree of maintenance is haphazard, which can lead to unpredictable and dangerous conditions.
One issue of particular concern is the lengthy timeline contractors used to have to begin clearing and sanding roads after a storm. In some instances, contractors had up to three hours before maintenance was mandated.
A lot can happen on a slippery BC highway in three hours.
CLAC put forth a resolution at its 2014 National Convention calling on the BC government to address the potentially life-threatening highway maintenance issues. Since then, some improvements have been made, including shorter timelines for contractors to begin snow clearing and sanding when required. But more can and needs to be done to keep BC’s roads and highways safe for everyone.
We spoke with three members who spend their workdays and nights hauling freight and equipment across BC. These drivers have their class one license, which in BC means they are able to operate commercial semitrailer trucks as well as all other motor vehicles or combinations of vehicles. The experiences they shared with us tell the story of what it’s like to brave the elements in some of the most difficult winter driving conditions anywhere in the world on some of the most treacherous stretches of highway.
Without their efforts, the economy would quickly grind to a halt. These truck drivers and their fellow Local 66 and 402 members are true professionals who have honed their craft to the finest degree.
Local 402 member
Clark Reefer Lines Limited
30 years driving truck
“For the last six years, I’ve been on the highway full time. I’ve driven all over BC on almost every highway you can think of. I’ve gotten to a place where I can read a highway—I can tell what’s coming up. If it’s wet or snowy or slippery on the highway, I can feel it and make adjustments to how I drive. I can pretty much tell what’s coming up ahead of me.
“But when it comes to the Coquihalla Highway, I’ve never been able to get a read on it. The weather conditions are so unpredictable—everything changes in a moment.
“If you are heading west from Merrit going to the coast, the drop down from the Zopkios brake check to the Great Bear Snow Shed Tunnel is the most dangerous. They call that part The Smasher because if you lose control or your brakes overheat, you’re going to smash into the tunnel.
“I start preparing for that section long before I get there. You have to gear down and go slow—real slow. Also, if you’re heading east into the Okanagan on Highway 97C, the drop down from the top of the connector is just as bad. That downhill section goes on and on—and it’s steep.
“The Kootenay Pass is a big one, and at certain times of the year, the weather really changes on you. It’ll be freezing up top but on the way down, it’ll warm up. The road can go from being full of snow to slushy and icy to clear within a few kilometres.
“I’ve never had to bail out into one of the runaway lanes. The way they’ve constructed some of them, I don’t know how you’d survive if you ever had to use one.
“I’ve been told that if your trailer starts sliding and it’s passing you, the best thing you can do is floor it and straighten everything out. But on the Coquihalla or 97C, there’s no way you can floor it—it’s too steep.
“The worst thing that happened to me was when I was heading south to Princeton on Highway 5A. It was in the early evening at about 6:00 p.m. after one of those days when it was just above freezing, and then it froze hard once the sun went down. It also happened to be during the shift change for the road maintenance crews.
“I came over a hill and saw flashing lights up ahead. A truck and trailer were in the ditch, and the police and tow truck were blocking one side of the road.
“I barely touched my brakes and I began to slide. The highway was a complete sheet of ice. I wound up sideways, 90 degrees to the highway, blocking all the lanes. I was okay and there was no damage to my equipment.
“But there were a few moments of sheer terror. I was lucky because the tow truck was right there and got me going again pretty quick.
“Highway maintenance can vary a lot depending on what community you’re in. Highway 97 between Cache Creek and the 100 Mile House, they can’t seem to get it right. But once you get past 98 Mile, maintenance switches to another contractor and the highway is fine. Another bad stretch is between Hixon and Red Rock, just south of Prince George.”
Local 66 member
Bandstra Transportation Systems Ltd.
13 years driving truck
“I’ve worked at Bandstra for my entire driving career and have spent the majority of my time driving in the northwest area of BC. The most dangerous route I’ve been on was a highway I just recently had the honour of travelling on.
“After the fires in Telegraph Creek, we got a bunch of loads of furniture to replace damaged and destroyed furniture. I was able to take three trailer loads into town.
“The road is narrow and winds its way for over 70 kilometres along the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in northern British Columbia. It’s like the Grand Canyon in Colorado.
“This stretch of highway—if you can call it that—is home to 20 percent grades, multiple switchbacks, and sheer drops of nearly a thousand feet. Improvements to this stretch of highway would not be very practical. But Highway 37N, which I frequent, has many areas that could be improved upon.
“The junction between Highway 37 and 37N is one in particular. The intersection marks the start of a 10 percent grade that sees heavy snow in the winter. There is no safe spot to put chains on as there is no chain-up area near it. Another problem is the lack of rest areas on the northbound side of the highway.
“Driving in the north, one of the most important things you need to be aware of is your fuel level. There are not many card lock pumps in the area, and the highway is susceptible to long closures in the winter for avalanche hazard and control.
“One of the scariest moments of my driving career happened a number of years ago. I was travelling to Stewart, BC, one winter and I was dusted out by an avalanche. Imagine driving at night and then suddenly not being able to see out of the windshield!
“I stopped immediately, and was fortunate to stay on the highway. I waited for the cloud to disappear—I think it took longer for my heart rate to slow down to normal.
“Once I could see again, I saw that a few inches of snow had fallen. But, fortunately, the avalanche did not reach the highway and block it.
“One way to improve highway safety on the trucking side would be to mandate that commercial drivers take a federally regulated training program. I would also like to see having the knowledge and ability to install tire chains properly included in the test for the class one driver’s license.”
Local 66 member
Triton Transport Ltd.
6 years driving truck
“Triton specializes in heavy-haul, low-bed loads and transports some of the largest objects that are legally allowed on provincial highways. We can be seen hauling anything from big Caterpillar machines to enormous steel or concrete beams that are hundreds of feet long.
“I specialize in operating steering trailers. These are the trucks and trailers that haul the huge concrete or steel beams. I spend hours in a cramped steering dolly located underneath the midpoint of the trailer—often more than 100 feet back of the truck. The loads are so long that they must be steered by two people, one in the truck and the second in the dolly. It is difficult work in the extreme and not for the faint of heart!
“On one trip we were taking a load of telephone poles up to Fort McMurray after the big fire. People didn’t think about it due to all the homes and businesses being burned down, but a lot of the telephone poles burned down as well and needed to be replaced.
“On this trip, which was in the winter, the heater in the dolly wasn’t working, and I was given a propane heater. I swear, by the time the trip was done, I almost had carbon monoxide poisoning. The whole way up, all I had to look through was a six-inch square through the dolly window.
“One of the biggest loads I was ever involved with was taking beams from Armstrong, BC, to Calgary. The truck, trailer, and beam together weighed in at over 220,000 pounds. You don’t get to move loads like that too often.”
“I’ve seen my fair share of winter conditions, especially on the Coquihalla and through Rogers Pass. The amount of snow that can accumulate through that stretch is amazing.
“When we have the big loads on the trailers, it’s actually not that bad driving in winter conditions. The problem is when you have an empty trailer and you’re running back light. That’s when things can get tricky.
“I was on Highway 16 in Jasper National Park, just near the BC-Alberta border, driving one morning after it had rained the night before. There was another heavy hauler in front of me, and I saw him starting to slide off the road.
“I touched my brakes and realized I was driving on a skating rink. We were both able to get our loads under control and pulled off on the shoulder. I came to a full stop and when I jumped out, I could see my trailer still sliding a bit. That’s how slippery it was!
“I got some sand and threw it under the tires, and there was enough grip to stop the trailer from going anywhere. We waited for three hours until the sand trucks came by. You can’t drive right away after it’s been sanded, so we waited another half hour before we got going.
“I’ve learned to keep a cool head about me when driving these loads. It’s a huge responsibility carrying the loads we do. But I love what I do. I take a lot of pride in my work.”