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Skills for Safety: Training employees to drive more carefully


It is common business practice to take a bottom-line approach to the operation of a fleet of vehicles. Cost-benefit analysis applies to just about every aspect of acquiring, operating and disposing of vehicles used for business purposes.

But what about the human aspect of vehicle operation? What are the costs of dealing with more frequent collision repair and maintenance, insurance claims, driver absence due to injury and increased fuel consumption, to name just a few aspects that can be directly affected by the skill of the driver behind the wheel? More to the point, what are the benefits of having fully trained drivers with a good attitude behind the wheel of your company’s vehicles?

By “fully trained,” we are referring to advanced skills beyond those needed to acquire the provincial licence needed to drive a given vehicle legally and a mindset that allows for such skills to be consistently put into practice. In the big picture, it would be ideal to have a driver able to control a skid on an icy highway in a five-ton delivery van. Some professional drivers can do that, and there are any number of advanced driving schools in Canada that can teach how to control a large vehicle in an emergency situation.

But training begins with learning smaller and more intangible skills, as a base from which to build. We spoke with two of Canada’s most experienced advanced driver trainers, who gave us their thoughts on the topic.

Change behaviour every day

For Doug Annett of Skid Control School in Oakville, Ontario, the name of his business signifies only a part of the training he offers. “There are two sides of the coin. There is what you do to handle an emergency, such as skid control, braking and emergency responses. But what we really want people to do is to change their behaviour every day, so they don’t get into emergencies in the first place. If you practise good driving every day, you may not get in the emergency in the first place, and if you do, you’re better equipped to handle it.”

To illustrate how even the smallest collision can make a difference, Annett uses the example of a courier fleet. “One of the benefits you can look at, once you have a large enough fleet, is your overall crash rate — how many collisions per million kilometres. And what are the crash types you have? For a lot of courier companies and other large fleets, the most common crash they have has nothing to do with skidding out of control or anything like that; it’s just the careless mistakes that occur in parking lots. Especially for delivery vehicles; the driver who hurries, he’s under pressure for time, he throws it into reverse without looking and backs it into a car. Things like that, where good judgements aren’t carried through. Instead of checking both mirrors, he checks one mirror, and he clips the side of a car with the side of the vehicle he just happens to not be looking at.”

“We have courier training courses, in a parking lot with pylons, showing people that if they adjust their mirrors properly and use reversing procedures that are applicable for their vehicle, there is no reason they can’t be better drivers,” says Annett.

“Scraping a car is minor in the sense that it is a $300 scratch or whatever, but that driver has completely thrown off his delivery schedule. He tried to save five seconds, and he just cost the company and its customers half an hour. And that’s if he can drive the vehicle away. Plus, there is the damage to the other vehicle, which could be a new luxury car.”

The essential aspects of training for Annett, and likely every other driver training pro, are vision habits, decision making and responses. These are skills that are developed and need to be practised constantly in all driving situations. But the overall philosophy under which these skills are applied has to be established, and Annett is clear on that.

“Here’s the really critical thing — you can’t be selectively careless. You can’t hit that post and claim, ‘Okay, I was careless, and I’m sorry I made that mistake,’ because you can’t make that mistake when you knock down the old lady and say, ‘Oh, I was careless.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m going to be careful when there are kids around,’ and then go ahead and whack the pole — and treat it with indifference. But that’s exactly the environment that a lot of couriers are operating in, in shopping centres and around office buildings and facilities like that, where there are all kinds of people walking. And that’s the real danger, hitting people.”

Perception is key

For Danny Kok of Driving Unlimited, the key aspect is how the actual tasks of driving and learning are perceived by the driver. “The challenge we face is with people who have been driving for many years,” says Kok. “Typically, such a driver will come in to the classroom and sit back, arms crossed, with ‘not interested’ body language. But as we get into the sessions and modules, they start realizing, ‘Hey, I can actually learn something here.’ The attitude is changed by us.

“The reason I think there is a lack of interest in driver training is because people think it’s boring, watching a guy standing in a classroom with a PowerPoint or a whiteboard, sitting listening to a speaker saying you should do this or that — it’s not experiential,” he adds. “So the attitudes are like, ‘I don’t want to hear this again. It’s boring and a waste of time.’ But in the car, they realize they can have fun doing this.

“We are looking to develop a higher interest in driving and the challenge of doing it better. It does take a while to actually measure the results, but in the short term, there is more enthusiasm on the part of the drivers, an improvement in morale. Management can then challenge the drivers to try to drive perfectly. We want to see a driver take pride in his driving, to always strive for perfection.”

The experts make compelling cases for advanced training, but in the end, it is the corporation that derives the benefits from competent drivers and the executive responsible for safety who needs to incorporate the principles and culture of advanced driving.

Increased confidence

Greg Chownyk of Shell Energy North America in Toronto is one of those executives. He put his driving employees through an advanced course — in this case, the Skid Control School — and he can see the benefits firsthand.

“Although Shell Energy doesn’t have a fleet, we do have a sales team that often drives to meet with our customers and others who commute to the office every day. The driving rules (wearing seat belts, no speeding, no mobile-phone use — even hands-free) are most relevant to office staff, so I decided to have the team take an advanced driving class last year. A year later, I still hear comments from employees about how much more aware they are while driving and how much more proactive they are behind the wheel to ensure they are driving safely and minimizing potential risky situations. It has definitely been beneficial.”

Chownyk can see a better attitude in the drivers, with more interest in driving safely and competently at all times. “The course the team participated in has given all participants an increased level of focus and confidence when it comes to advanced driving techniques. There is definitely a conscious effort to continue to implement the techniques. Whether it be in formal discussions we will have about safe driving or casual conversations amongst a few staff, you hear a number of comments around putting to use the skills we learned.”

Not only that, but he feels his team’s productivity has improved. “I can say the heightened awareness of proactive, safe driving does leave them in a better mindset when they arrive at their destination, whether it be the office or a customer’s location, which I think leads to better productivity.”

In the big picture, advanced driver training can be framed in terms of a company’s overall commitment to safety, according to Chownyk. “As sales professionals, the time we spend commuting to and from the office or to customers’ locations are the parts of our days when we are most at risk. The training really reinforced the importance of safe driving and Shell’s Life-Saving Rules, which form the guiding principles in Shell’s health and safety policy.”

The benefits of advanced training for corporate drivers are measurable on more than just a dollars-and-cents basis; positive attitude and behaviour are the basis upon which safe driving is built.

Gerry Frechette is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.