Options in Driver Training

Good driving must become a "mindless" habit. It must be so ingrained that you don't have to think about it--you just do it.

DESPITE billions of dollars spent on vehicle safety improvements, highway fatalities in 2003 reached their highest level since 1990. Traffic accidents remain the number one cause of on-the-job deaths.

Everyone agrees safer driving is the key to reducing traffic accidents. Most collisions are preventable if the right precautions are learned, practiced, and used consistently. Fortunately, there are many options available to teach and reinforce good driving habits.

Drivers Are Only Human
All drivers have one thing in common: They are human. And for humans, driving is not an instinctive behavior. They have to make conscious adjustments in their behavior to make driving safe.

In other words, drivers need to be taught collision avoidance techniques. These are concepts that don't naturally occur to drivers; they must be consciously practiced to become unconscious habits. Better driving habits make safer drivers.

What are habits? A habit is defined as a tendency or disposition to act in a particular way. It is a learned behavioral response that has become associated with a particular situation, especially one frequently repeated, such as driving.

A habit becomes something that occurs naturally without thinking. Over the years, bad habits can take control and become ingrained in our behavior. For example, if you are not thinking about your driving 100 percent of the time, what is safely guiding your vehicle? Driving habits take over while you are thinking of other things.

Let's admit it. Driving can be boring. Your mind can easily wander, or you can even fall asleep. Good driving must become a "mindless" habit. It has to be almost instinctual, a gut feel, intuitive, not a conscious effort. It must be so ingrained that you don't have to think about it--you just do it.

Training to Improve Driving Habits
Drivers establish a base foundation of driving habits early on and practice those habits for years to come. Drivers must relearn driving habits to be able to properly see, think, and act their way through a multitude of driving environments, challenges, and changes. Training should focus on total awareness, perceptive anticipation, accurate forecasting, early detection, and deliberate reaction.

Many driver training techniques are available today. The best type of training should identify the strength and weaknesses of drivers and give them practical solutions to overcome specific driving deficiencies. Good driving habits not only reduce collisions, but positively affect fuel consumption, maintenance expense, insurance cost, and driver attitude.

In the early days of professional driving, a fleet owner might toss the keys to a prospective driver. If they were caught, the owner had his driver. The liability of this negligent approach has caused companies to take driver preparation seriously.

Fleet owners now have a host of driver training approaches to choose from. These include:

  • Classroom seminars
  • Self-directed training
  • Track or skid pad training
  • Simulator training
  • Computer and video-based training
  • Behind-the-wheel training

Classroom Seminars
This approach is very popular because a large group can be trained at once, which lowers the per-driver cost. It also accommodates flexible scheduling. For those who learn from audio/visual stimulation, classroom training combined with on-the-road training can strengthen good driving habits.

For new or accident-prone drivers, it is important to combine this approach with other training techniques. That is because this approach is passive rather than active. Most people learn new habits when they are actually performing the activity they are trained to do. These kinesthetic learners need hands-on training to develop their understanding and remember what they have learned.

Self-Directed Training
Self-directed training is when a lead driver or manager takes the new driver out on the road. Frequently used by small to medium-size fleets, it is cost-effective and flexible.

A good driver is not always a good teacher. Therefore, using this unstructured approach makes it possible to pass bad habits from one driver to another. ("This is the way we have always done it.") To be effective, the lead driver or manager needs to be schooled in teaching techniques. Once properly prepared, an instructor can use other training options, such as videos, booklets, posters, and rewards, to reinforce good driving habits.

Track or Skid Pad Training
This type of training consists of using an isolated track with obstacles (cones) or treated asphalt to simulate certain conditions. In this controlled environment, drivers can learn precision driving techniques, such as handling skids, backing up, parking, etc. Learning can be fun and effective, especially when combined with classroom training.

This approach is primarily used to teach drivers how to handle specific types of driving incidents. Techniques can be repeated to increase proficiency. The drawback to this approach is that you rarely encounter the ideal conditions of the track in real world driving. In addition, a driver needs almost daily practice of the learned techniques for them to become instinctual driving habits.

Simulator Training
Driving simulators offer a variety of driving environments and can monitor driver response. This type of training can be done any time of the day or night. It allows for a consistent message to be delivered to the driver. Simulators can expose students to traffic conditions that would be unsafe to try in behind-the-wheel training. Good instruction is needed to transfer the training effects from simulators to the real world.

Because many companies do not own simulators, logistics can be a problem; drivers have to be transported to the simulator location. Some drivers are affected by Simulator Adaptation Syndrome, which is a type of motion sickness. Using simulators, it is difficult for the student to judge some distances and speeds until some orientation time is experienced.

Computer and Video Based Training
A low-cost way to deliver a consistent message is through computer-based training and videos. Again, there is the opportunity for around-the-clock training sessions. Computer and video-based training can be used to reinforce and test what is learned in other types of training. It is cost effective because as more drivers are trained, training costs per driver fall. New topics can be easily added, and it also can be an effective training management tool.

For drivers with good records, videos and CD-ROMs are enough to reinforce already good habits. For those with poor driving habits, these training tools typically are not enough to re-learn driving techniques. These high-risk drivers need behind-the-wheel training and one-on-one coaching to change their habits.

On-The-Road Training
For most drivers there is no substitute for on-the-road training. This is where you can take the theories learned in the classroom and apply them in a real-world environment. Their vehicle in traffic becomes a teaching tool that allows drivers to be personally involved. Hands-on promotes understanding, acceptance, and retention. This technique can be delivered one-on-one and is also very effective in training small groups.

An on-the-road instructor can observe proper eye movement, which is critical to good driving. This includes looking ahead, checking mirrors, and using both peripheral and central vision to investigate and detect possible dangers. Another critical element is good vehicle placement, which also can be taught and monitored in real traffic situations. On-the-road training requires an investment of time, but the result is worth the effort.

Changing Habits Takes Time
Habits are hard to change. Even with the best training, drivers must consciously use what they have learned for weeks or months before they become habits. The goal is to have good habits take control when you are not thinking about your driving. With good habits, the driver's chances of arriving safely at his or her destination are much greater.

No matter what training option you choose, there is no doubt drivers need training to develop safe habits. The results can be measured in reduced collisions, lower operating expenses, and saved lives. It just makes cents.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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