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Safety and Compliance: Driver Training? Forget It!

by John Oldfield

In today's warp-speed world, when you quit learning you might as well just hang up your guns and ride off into the sunset. What really makes a complete and competent driver is a combination of education and hands-on experience. But all too often, the educational element of professional driver development seems to cease once the driver gains a bit of experience. And that's probably not the driver's fault.

There are still too many fleets who see driver development as a cost, and one to be avoided, failing to see the advantages of a well educated, professional driver. As well, a lot of fleets confuse 'training' with 'education'. It may seem like a small point until you consider the implications.

You 'train' a dog to obey commands, and you can train a human to complete certain tasks. What drivers need is bigger than that. They need continuing 'education' so that they can learn to see the big picture and make their own decisions. Seldom, if ever, can the challenges faced by a driver be broken down into a simple, neatly compartmentalized training system. There are just too many variables.

It doesn't surprise me when drivers reject traditional training exercises. Many regard them in the same way some fleets do - a necessary evil. As a driver, you're likely irked by being reminded that you're supposed to do a pre-trip inspection every morning. Drivers are usually offered little reason to buy into the training, so the exercise becomes a waste of time and money. Because the benefits are minimal, interest is minimal. It's a vicious little circle.

Today's more dynamic carriers embrace driver education because, in the long run, they know the quality of the final product can only improve. And there's another perfectly legitimate reason for a carrier to want to educate its drivers: to protect themselves against potential litigation arising from an accident.

By now, you've probably heard the phrase 'due diligence'. It's a kind of generic legal term that's going to have a bigger and bigger impact on your lives. In the case of an accident, for example, it means that the fleet you work for could use the 'due diligence' defence in court. But only if it had actually done everything reasonably possible to prevent or avoid it - like educating you. In other words, it's been 'duly diligent'.

I tell you, this concept will do more to change the way fleets - and drivers - approach training and education than all the free scrambled eggs in the world have done thus far.

For a driver, the pre-trip inspection is the cornerstone of due diligence. Let's say you're a little pressed for time, it's raining, but you feel lucky. The truck was in good shape yesterday so you'll do the pre-trip later. Down the road you go. On the way to your first drop, some poor devil in the car beside you has a heart attack. He loses control, nails your right front wheel and sends you careening across the highway to collide with a number of other vehicles.

The investigation reveals the other driver's heart attack. But it also uncovers a vehicle defect, totally unrelated to the collision, and of course it's not on the inspection report - the one that you neglected to complete. Big trouble.

Now, everything you did up to the time of the collision, and just about everything else you've ever done as a professional driver, will be called into question. Any possible due diligence defence just went up in smoke, because opposing lawyers like to ask annoying questions. Did you conduct yourself in a professional manner? Did you take all reasonable precautions that an educated professional driver should take? Did you act in the best public interest? And then, why didn't you pre-trip the truck?

Your history as a professional will be examined in court. Have you routinely failed to perform pre-trips in the past? Have you ever been put out of service for operating a vehicle with mechanical defects? What do the maintenance records on your vehicle look like? The due diligence defence only works if you and your fleet can prove that you've historically taken the trouble to operate a safe vehicle on public roadways. If that's called into question, you may be toast.

From an educational point of view, a standard training exercise can teach a driver how to pre-trip a truck. Education, on the other hand, can help the driver to see the value in doing the pre-trip. The difference between training and education is subtle, but significant. Training teaches you to do things right, while education provides the insights required to do the right things.

If you don't think you're getting the education you deserve, perhaps you should take the lead in convincing your carrier to develop meaningful programs. Your managers may not be aware of your specific knowledge gaps (see Safety and Compliance, highwaySTAR, Oct. 1999), so don't be afraid of suggesting a topic or two. If you think you possess skills that others in your fleet would benefit from, stand up and tell the boss. There's no better lesson than one that comes from somebody who's been there and done that.

Remember that education truly is a two-way street, and modern educators will tell you they're constantly learning from their students. There used to be an expression about teachers: "Thems who can't do - teach." Nothing could be further from the truth today. Nowadays, I'd say, "thems that can - must teach." When you keep learning, you keep improving. And by helping your peers, you'll begin to understand the essence of education.

John Oldfield is a transportation insurance specialist with the Dalton Timmis Insurance Group in Hamilton, Ontario. He can be reached at 888-385-8466 or e-mail:

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