Giving experienced drivers the tools to prevent accidents

TRANSPORTATION committees and training create an opportunity for managers to have open discussions about fleet safety with drivers. These committees provide a forum to take the time to listen to driver concerns. In a session devoted to best practices in managing drivers at the recent Productivity Convention & Exposition, held October 17 to 19, 2004, in Dallas, Leesa Mansen, vice-president, sales for Smith System Driver Improvement, provided a look at training for experienced drivers.

Smith System, Arlington, Texas, was founded in 1952 by Harold L Smith four years after he began teaching a technique called “space cushion driving.” The Smith System holds that the largest percentage of all collisions are preventable and that taking the correct precautions to prevent vehicle crashes can be learned and practiced. Smith System has trainers in 17 cities in the US as well as in Switzerland. The company has conducted training in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Canada, and Central and South America.

Training for experienced drivers provides the best opportunity for preventing accidents. Almost all accidents involve experienced, licensed drivers. In 2003, in the US, 42,815 people were killed in traffic accidents and 2.9 million people were injured, Mansen said. These collisions involved more than 11 million vehicles and cost more than a total of $230 billion.

For every traffic death, 68 people are injured, Mansen said. For every 148 automotive collisions, at least one person dies. These statistics seem to indicate that people were not designed originally to drive and still are safest when walking at speeds of about three miles per hour. Learning to survive in an environment where people are moving 50 to 70 mph and where everything is moving requires a profound change of habits, she said.

The average licensed driver has received less than 20 hours of instruction, Mansen said. At the same time, the average driver learned how to drive while still a teenager, and as everyone knows, teenagers are bulletproof. It was while drivers were young and impervious to injury that most of the habits that still control their driving were developed.

Most state licensing programs are designed to ensure that drivers can control a vehicle and abide by commonly accepted modes of behavior and highway laws, Mansen said. Licensing programs do little to teach new drivers how to avoid the mistakes of other drivers.

For safe, professional operation, drivers need to be taught how to avoid collisions, Mansen said. That is a concept that doesn't come first for most drivers. However, collision avoidance is a habit that can be learned, and better driving habits will result in better, safer drivers, she said.

One problem with safe driving is that no one spends every second of a trip thinking about safe operation. Drivers do not focus constantly on safety, because they have too many other distractions, including how to do their job well, competing for their attention, Mansen said.

Indirect costs triple direct costs

Some operators suggest that a constant focus on safety costs too much. However, studies of traffic accidents have shown that the indirect costs of a single collision exceed the direct cost by a factor of three, Mansen said. In the simplest terms, the direct cost of an accident includes the price of insurance plus the claim settlement. Indirect costs cover a whole range of factors including scheduling delays, lost goodwill from a customer, spoiled product, cleanup time and labor, increased insurance, legal fees, and driver recruiting and training if the driver was injured or had to be terminated.

Recovering the cost of an accident relates directly to corporate profit margin, Mansen said. For companies lucky enough to enjoy a 5% profit margin, recovering $5,000 profit lost in an accident requires $20,000 of additional sales.

The reasons for collisions can be almost too numerous to list. A collision could be caused by driver impairment such as illegal drugs or alcohol in the worst case or a simple cold medication as the least problematic, Mansen said. The driver could have been driving too fast for prevailing conditions or following another vehicle too closely in heavy traffic. The reason could come from outside such as another vehicle tailgating. The driver might not have been paying close attention, or might have been distracted by the radio, a cell phone, or a message from dispatch. Don't forget that well-trained healthy drivers get tired from time to time, even when they report for work well rested, she said.

95% driver error

Lack of training, particularly in backing a vehicle, might be the cause of an accident. Backing accidents account for about half of all commercial vehicle collisions, Mansen said. Some accidents are caused by equipment failure, but 95% of all collisions are caused by driver error simply because people make mistakes, she said. The key to safe operation is to reduce the number of mistakes drivers make for every mile that they drive.

Classroom situations provide a good method for additional driver training. Good trainers can easily keep the attention of a group for three to four hours, Mansen said. Large groups are effective from a company efficiency standpoint, but they sometimes lack the amount of group interaction that leads to good training. Self-directed training also works, particularly when the driver is given a video or CD to watch with a test to take at the end of the presentation. The best and most effective way to reduce collision frequency is one-on-one, behind-the-wheel training, she said. This training can take place on a closed course such as a track or large parking facility, or it can be done during the course of the regular workday.

One-on-one training seems to be the most effective, because the driver gets constant coaching and feedback from the trainer, Mansen said. Some drivers develop habits that can lead to collisions. A trainer in the truck can spot those habits such as following too closely or not checking mirrors often enough. A good example of positive coaching might be the trainer spotting a vehicle moving into a blind area before the driver notices. Reminding a driver to watch for vehicles that seem to disappear around the truck can be extremely helpful.

Self-directed training seems to work well for small fleets. Incentives such as belt buckles or special caps help motivate drivers to take part in self-directed training, Mansen said. Computer-based training is fairly efficient, because it allows drivers to start and stop the course without having to go back to the beginning every time. Closed course training, especially if it involves things such as controlling a vehicle on a slick surface, can be entertaining to drivers.

Five keys to safety

The Smith System emphasizes five keys to safe driving, Mansen said. The company teaches drivers (1) to aim high in steering, meaning that drivers are taught to look farther down the road for potentially unsafe situations. A good average is to look down the road to the point the vehicle will be 15 seconds later. Looking down the road, drivers should (2) see the big picture, not just their own space in the traffic flow. The Smith System requires drivers (3) to keep their eyes moving rather than concentrating on one spot in front of the truck. Drivers are taught (4) to position the vehicle in relation to other traffic so that it has a place to move safely if a dangerous situation pops up. Probably as important as any other aspect of safe operation, drivers should (5) be sure that other motorists can see them and know what they will do next. In simple terms, use turn signals.

Transportation committees go beyond simple safety training, because they give drivers a chance to talk about almost anything that concerns them. In addition to safety, drivers use committee meetings to discuss maintenance practices as well as the procedures they are asked to follow to perform their jobs. Using committees to investigate accidents enhances awareness of safety and efficiency.

Safety is a full time job that needs to be emphasized every day before every route. Following the ideas of the Smith System, every single accident can be prevented. Responsibility for safety stretches throughout a company so that managers are just as involved in a culture of safety as are frontline workers. A comprehensive safety program emphasizes the value of preventing accidents at home as well as at work.

Committee composition

A good mix for transportation committee membership could be at least two drivers, someone from maintenance, and a supervisor. Membership between five to seven seems to work well as do monthly committee meetings. The purpose of these meetings is to review all accidents from the previous months as well as looking for developing trends related to safety. Another good practice for transportation committees is a routine audit of drivers, including unannounced rides on routes to observe driver performance. These rides also provide an opportunity to check equipment under actual delivery conditions.

Accompanying a driver on a route allows a manager to find out if delivery ramps operate easily and properly and if door hardware is correctly lubricated so that doors open easily. Driver audits allow managers to develop plans for enhanced training throughout a transportation operation.

Investigation of accidents should, obviously, seek to assign responsibility for the incident. More important, however, is an investigation procedure that seeks to develop ways to avoid similar accidents in the future. A careful review of every accident can lead to changes in equipment specifications for improved safety. For instance, all delivery vehicles are equipped with mirrors that look to the rear and to the side of the trucks. A careful review of backing accidents can help determine if the right mirrors are located in the right places and if the drivers are properly trained to use the mirrors.

Knowing how to drive a truck is an evolving process. Accident investigations often point to new ways to train drivers. Some fleets base nearly all drivers at their distribution centers, while other scatter drivers across the trade area for more efficient, lower mileage routes. Drivers who operate from a central warehouse can be trained in person; resident drivers in remote locations are good candidates for long-distance learning using computer-based training.

All newly hired workers should complete training within 60 days of going to work. In addition, drivers should get an annual refresher course. Additional training must be mandatory following every accident.

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