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Old World Trucking

by Eleanor Beaton

It’s been three months since Phil Marwood immigrated to Canada from England, and he swears he’s never going back. The 41-year-old long-hauler, who has been driving professionally since he was 17, is one of a group of European imports recently recruited by Big Freight Systems Inc. of Steinbach, Man. For the fleets, recruiting skilled drivers from Europe is one way to address Canada’s driver shortage. For drivers such as Marwood, the move to Canada is a chance to start fresh in a new country where the living is good, the land is cheap, and perhaps most importantly for a professional driver, the roads are mercifully quiet.

But moving to an entirely new continent isn’t always an easy transition. Saying hello to Canada means saying goodbye to family, friends, and six weeks’ paid vacation (a European standard – seriously). But less vacation time isn’t the only thing the Europeans have to get used to – driving a truck in Canada is completely different from the European experience. We polled some recent and not-so-recent European immigrants to find out what makes driving here so different from over there.

Smaller Roads, Heavier Traffic.
Marwood – who has been grid locked in Toronto on a Friday afternoon – says Canada’s one blip of truly heavy traffic (the GTA) more closely resembles what it’s like to drive on British roadways than any other Canadian highway he’s traveled since he arrived in August. “I couldn’t believe how quieter the roads were when I first moved to Canada,” he says. “British roads are much, much busier.” It makes sense – Britain’s population is twice that of Canada’s, but the country is roughly half the size of Newfoundland and Labrador. Marwood says the sheer volume of British traffic made driving a stressful experience – one he’s been happy to trade in for much more peaceful trips on the Trans-Canada.

Long-haul Means International
European drivers who are interested in long-haul better be prepared to cross borders – and lots of them. Considering that most European countries are smaller than many Canadian provinces, there’s really no such thing as long-haul driving within your own country. But for North American drivers who are accustomed to intense security and long hold-ups at the border, traveling throughout Europe is, relatively speaking, a breeze. Many of the regulations affecting drivers apply across the entire European Union, making the regulatory side of cross-country travel fairly streamlined. Also, the EU has made it simple and efficient for citizens to travel from one country to another. Widespread use of a single currency, the Euro, makes inter-continental travel even easier for European drivers.

Gradus Vanden Huevel (profiled in highwaySTAR in August 2005’s “Northern Exposure”), a Canadian citizen who emigrated from Holland in 1997, hauled goods throughout a number of European countries including Spain, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe. While English is the unofficial language of commerce, Vanden Huevel says it’s not uncommon for experienced long-haulers to be fluent in several languages. “It makes travel throughout Europe much simpler,” he says. He speaks four languages – German, French, Dutch, and English.

Truck Stops? What Truck Stops?
Anyone who has been to a beach in Europe knows that Europeans tend to be much more relaxed about public nudity than we uptight North Americans. Turns out, that relaxed attitude comes in handy when it comes to keeping clean on the road. Truckstops aren’t necessarily a rarity in Europe, but in countries such as Germany and Switzerland, where land is very expensive, they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they are in Canada. According to André Peret, a Swiss immigrant and owner of The Road Scholar, a driver training, safety, and maintenance training company based in Hamilton, Ont., that explains why it’s not unusual to see drivers showering (yes, showering) on the roadside. Some long-haulers strap a water-filled camel bag on top of their cabs where the water is heated by the sunlight. When it’s time to grab a shower, and there’s no truckstop in sight, they’ll pull over, affix a showerhead to the camel bag, and scrub away.

No Logbooks, Please, We’re British, Swedish, and ...
For a European driver, using a logbook is a little like using chalk and slate – it’s outdated to say the least. In fact, some of the drivers we interviewed laughed out loud at the idea of logbooks. It’s hard to blame them…the European industry switched to tachographs about twenty years ago (see sidebar).
A tachograph is a mechanized device that records a driver’s on-duty time. The EU is about to legislate digital tachographs (already in use throughout Europe) that are much more difficult to tamper with. Drivers insert a Smart Card into the machine, which then automatically records the driver’s personal information and driving activity information.

Terry Crow, a veteran driver from England who also recently moved to Canada to join Big Freight Systems, says that digital tachographs can be a nuisance to drivers who need to make up lost time. “Some say it’s like having a spy in the cab,” he says. Because the newest tachographs record all manner of driving information including idling time, breaking patterns, and speed traveled, some forward thinking fleets use the data produced by the device to reward drivers for efficient driving habits. “It was a good way for drivers to earn extra money,” Crow says.
What’s more, as André Peret points out, tamper-proof driving time recorders force the entire industry to take responsibility for hours of service regulations, not just the drivers themselves. Keeping two logbooks is not an option – once a driver shows up for work and inserts his Smart Card into the tachograph, he’s on the clock – whether his load is ready or not.

They Earn by the Hour
The vast majority of company drivers in Europe earn by the hour. Long-haul drivers earn around $60,000 (Cdn) per year, local drivers earn less – usually in the $30,000 - $50,000 range. In Sweden, good truck drivers earn about as much as civil servants with a Master’s degree.

The fact that drivers are paid for their time on the job – whether they are driving or not, makes up for the fact that their driving day is so heavily regulated. In Germany and France, for example, trucks are not allowed on the road on weekends. This is a good thing if you’re from Germany or France and can get home on Friday. It’s a royal pain if you’re a long-haul driver from, say, Croatia, and don’t have a hope in hell of making it home for the weekend. Then again, those poor souls can rest easy knowing that, not only will they be paid for each and every hour they spend waiting, they’ll also get a bonus for having to spend a night in the sleeper.

While European drivers earn roughly the same as Canadian drivers, their money doesn’t go as far. European drivers who emigrate to Canada find that most things – especially land, homes, and fuel – are much cheaper. That means they can enjoy a much higher standard of living. And it’s the standard of living that attracts them in the first place, according to Terry Crow. “We came here because we wanted a change of life – and that’s exactly what we’ve got,” Crow says. Of course, the biggest change of life is probably yet to come for Brits like Marwood and Crow who have yet to experience winter in Manitoba. Marwood, for one, says he isn’t fazed in the least.
“There’s so much space, the people are so friendly,” he says. “I have absolutely no thought of moving back to England.”