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Driving the big rigs yourself

Not every farmer is licensed to drive a semi, but they could be. Here’s how it works

Susanna Heinrich took the course. Now she’s licensed to drive the semi behind her.

For me, getting a 1A license (known as a 1Q in Manitoba or Alberta) was a necessity. I was on the farm, raising kids, helping where I could. The farm was expanding, the workforce was fluid and slowly meandering to “greener pastures” — our employees were retiring or coming on board without a 1A license. Point blank — at harvest time the farm needed to move more grain in the same time with fewer people. This meant a move to larger trucks and training those remaining to drive them. That’s how I got so lucky.

If you’re a farmer thinking about getting licensed to drive a semi, and something is holding you back, think again. Remember, it is not rocket science — it is, in fact, not science at all. So, how difficult is it?

The road to the road

The procedure is consistent across the Prairies, although there may be some minor differences and some differing name classifications.

In Saskatchewan, the endorsement is an “A” for air brakes. In Manitoba, its “S” (slack adjuster endorsement) or an “A” endorsement. In Alberta the air brake endorsement is called a class “Q.” But not to worry whether it’s an A, S or a Q, it means the same and is valid across Canada.

So to start at the beginning: first the decision is made, for whatever reason, to obtain your 1A. That’s simple enough. If you are over 18, hold a valid license in any of the 5, 4, 3, or 2 classifications, and are not a “novice” driver you can begin the process.

Before you can take your driver’s test, you must apply for your 1A leaner’s permit. This involves a few steps. You will need a medical exam. Your doctor will check all basic functions as well as ask you about any seizure, fainting or substance-abuse disorders.

Once the medical has been accepted by the licensing agency, you can set up an appointment to write the test for your 1A learner’s permit. This is a series of seven “mini” exams — all multiple choice. Questions are specific to each class of vehicle, air brakes and road signs. The cost is minimal ($10) and you may repeat it on subsequent days, if needed.

That completed and passed, you would now have a class 1A learners permit which means you can drive the big rigs — as long as a driver with a valid 1A and at least three years experience is sitting beside you. Once that hurdle has been cleared, you can choose to enrol in a drivers training program or practice on your own. If you practice on your own, be sure to use the knowledge of your teacher, but also the “professional drivers handbook” for information specific about circle checks (pre-trip inspections), air brake adjustments, coupling and uncoupling. This way, you learn to do it “by the book” as this is what the examiner will specifically look for during the practical test.

Getting schooled

If you choose to enrol in a professional driving school, look for one accredited by the driving authority (i.e. SGI in Saskatchewan). The content of all the training schools is quite similar, and there were usually at least three options, ranging from one-, two- or three-week programs. You may also choose to pay by the hour for “refresher” courses, but generally a minimum one-week course is recommended. In the classroom you will be given a chance to discuss all the requirements for the practical test as well as things such as how to complete logbooks, coupling and uncoupling, dollying down/up the trailers, chaining the tires as well as plenty of in-truck driving experience and critiquing.

The fees vary from province to province and school to school. I checked several in each of the Prairie provinces and found the cost to range from approximately $2,000 to $2,700 for a one-week course (20 hours of hands-on driving, plus classroom time and observation while in the truck), and up to $5,000 to $6,000 for a three-week (40 hours driving) program.

Me, in the cab

I chose the two-week option. Although I was quite comfortable driving large farm equipment and tandem axle trucks, I had little to no experience with the long trailers on the semis. (As I had to travel and stay at a far-away city, it was also a chance for my husband to bond with our children and appreciate me even more).

When you do go for your actual road test — and this can be done either by an instructor at your school (if accredited and if initiated by the school) or at the government licensing body.

If you have chosen to not attend a training course, you are responsible to arrange for your own (legal) truck and trailer for the road test. If you are enrolled with an instructional school, they will usually allow you to use their equipment for this purpose — it’s part of your tuition. The cost for this portion (which, again, if you have gone through a school is likely included in your fee) is $55. You will be asked to show your knowledge of air brake adjustment, a pre-trip (circle check) inspection, and actually handling the vehicle on the road.

My road test was done late November in a snowstorm. Not ideal driving conditions, but an excellent opportunity to demonstrate my newfound capabilities.

As I said, it isn’t rocket science — if you can drive a manual transmission, you can drive a semi. Like anything, it takes practice, patience and time to refine the skills to be comfortable in most situations. It’s like so many things in life — easy to learn, a challenge to master.

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