Q&A: Training the New Generation of Drivers

Editor's note: The weak economy dampened employers' concern that young Americans weren't stepping forward to replace a retired generation of truckers, but that concern will come back as the economy improves, predicts Jim Smith, Senior Vice President — Training for Smith System Driver Improvement Institute, Inc., an Arlington, Texas-based company founded more than 50 years ago. It will become imperative not only to retain good drivers but to improve the driving of those who need it, Smith said during a Jan. 13, 2010, conversation with OH&S Editor Jerry Laws about distractions, in-vehicle technologies, and more. Excerpts from the conversation follow:

OH&S: Tell me about your company and what you do.

Jim Smith: What we do is teach people who know how to drive how to stay out of collisions. And we do this in over 90 countries around the world.

I've trained from the sands of Kuwait to the jungles of Guyana to the streets of New York to the plains of Wyoming, and I see the problems that lead to collisions are mostly a people problem. This makes sense when you realize we weren't really designed to go through our environment at the speeds at which we travel when driving or carrying the weight we carry in the form of vehicle or load. To help drivers fill in any gaps that our system of licensing might have, we deliver our collision avoidance techniques behind the wheel. In this on-road environment, we can modify driver behavior by helping drivers realize their poor driving habits and showing them how to correct them.

OH&S: What do you think the big challenges today are for employers who have workers driving and bear some responsibility if they are involved in a crash, and also for fleet operators?

Jim Smith: Whether it's people in cars or drivers in trucks, the first step is to make sure that you hire the right people. So many problems can be weeded out in that process of hiring if consideration of driving is taken. It may include going further than just a background check. Many companies we work with have drive-alongs prior to hiring, especially if they're driving larger vehicles. So they pre-qualify them in that respect.

But with smaller vehicles, such as a sales fleet, many of those organizations really are in business of doing something else, transportation not being a key focus. So when they hire somebody, their focus may be on their ability to sell, their knowledge, their background, but not necessarily driving skills. More and more, employers are filling in the gaps by providing some form of driver training and safety awareness for their driving employees. In the past. motivating factors that pushed training included "it's the right thing to do," potential litigation, and bottom-line losses. Today, it is referred to as "executive piece of mind" and includes all the above.

OH&S: Do they not check it at all?

Jim Smith: Just an example: We might work with a pharmaceutical company that has a seven-week training program where they train a new hire about one of their products. And then the new hire learns about all the products that compete with their company's product. Throughout that seven-week period, at any time, they can be washed out of the program -- they can fail.

The last day is a Friday. On the next day, Saturday, comes the driver safety class: "Oh, by the way, you'll be driving one of our vehicles for most of your work day. Your meetings with the clients, although important, will take up a very small portion of your day."

So it's actually a larger part of the job, providing more potential loss exposure. Understandably the company spends the seven weeks on the part of the job the new hire needs most and possibly take for granted that since they have a license they can drive safely. And it's the one thing where one bad mistake can cost the company millions.

Hiring good drivers is a good start. It wasn't that long ago there was a concern within the freight companies that a large portion of their drivers would be lost almost at once with the Baby Boomers getting ready to retire. I think that concern will return as the economy picks up. There's just not that many people coming in wanting to drive trucks; the incoming work force is looking longer at less physical work rather than get out there and hump freight. So there was a big concern over who would come in and drive the trucks that move goods throughout this country.

OH&S: In-vehicle technologies can help, monitoring speed, braking, location, and more. Has that made it easier for employers?

Jim Smith: If my customer puts a black box on one of their vehicles or a video recording device, as that equipment gathers data throughout the day in a job that's really without supervision, at the end of the day, my customer would have information on the driver's actions throughout the day. Of course, he would have to process the information. That becomes a whole other problem. Now he would have to staff up for that task and turn raw data into information that, many times, requires some form of action.

He can use this information to help a driver or to help his fleet be a safer fleet. But it's just letting you know what's happening. It's not changing what's happening. Aft er all these years, I still have to tell my customers the only way to effectively modify driver behavior is through the training process. It still isn't the quickest or easiest thing to do, but with today's technology it can be more effectively focused. OH&S: From your point of view, are behavior and awareness the keys to making drivers safer?

Jim Smith: What we're known for is behindthe- wheel training, but we also offer seminars and online training. We sell videos and books to support the training, not in place of the training. The training we prefer to recommend to our customers is behind-the-wheel training. And in that on-road environment, when you're talking about behavior modification, you can effectively make a driver or an individual aware of their driving habits or what they are doing behind-the-wheel. How many times do you think about driving when you drive down the road?

I'll bet the percentage is small.

OH&S: Sometimes we'll print an announcement in our magazine that a driver has amassed a million or more accident-free miles. Do even those drivers have bad habits and need this kind of training?

Jim Smith: Well, I've had the benefit of training a number of million-plus milers, and I'm in awe. It took me forever to even fly a million miles, let alone meet somebody who not only drove it, but drove it accident-free. That's amazing.

And I would think that person coming through the class would just be bored to tears because they would have it all. I have been pleasantly surprised. I've never had somebody that has that many accident-free miles come up and say, "I wasted my time." I've had guys that have 5,000 miles between their last two accidents come up to me and say, "This was a waste of my time."

The million-milers, they come up and say, "I got a lot out of this program today. I already do a lot of this stuff, but I can always learn more." And the beauty of what we do, what we teach: It's easy to learn, easy to practice, and it works on any kind of road with any type of vehicle or driver. That's why we've been successful in so many countries.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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