Fit to drive

Wellness programs contribute to safety, productivityA fit driver is a safe and productive driver, with better performance and fewer crashes. Yet despite these proven benefits, efforts to implement driver wellness programs have been disappointing."We have a tough nut to crack with drivers," says Dave Berry, director of ITS and research programs at the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) in Alexandria,

Wellness programs contribute to safety, productivity

A fit driver is a safe and productive driver, with better performance and fewer crashes. Yet despite these proven benefits, efforts to implement driver wellness programs have been disappointing.

"We have a tough nut to crack with drivers," says Dave Berry, director of ITS and research programs at the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) in Alexandria, Va. "They can't go to a gym every day, and their work life isn't conducive to exercise and eating healthy food."

NPTC's Private Fleet Management Institute (now the Institute for Truck Transportation Management), Health Concepts of Des Moines, Iowa, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) have completed a study on a new wellness program they hope will turn around the problem of poor driver health.The "Getting in Gear" program focuses on the "Four R's": Refuelin g (healthy eating habits); Relating (value of relationships with family and friends); Rejuvenating (enjoying the health benefits of exercise); and Relaxing (managing stress).

The pilot program began in September 1998 with 128 participants who were given a package consisting of a brochure, video, audiotapes and notebook, along with instructions. Driver's health was assessed before the program began, and included collecting baseline information about work environment, blood pressure, pulse, muscle flexibility and strength, as well as cholesterol levels. During the program, drivers received personal coaching by phone and e-mail .

After a four-month period, participants were given followup assessments. Although results were positive, they were far from stellar. Since only 54 of the original 128 drivers returned for their assessments voluntarily, researchers wondered if those who returned represented only the most diligent drivers. In other words, did only the healthier drivers return? After tracking down some of the other participants for followup, researchers found that they were just as healthy as those who came back voluntarily.

Although cholesterol levels, blood pressure and pulse rates improved only slightly, muscle flexibility and fitness showed the most improvement. "This is important," the study noted, "because this is the area where drivers needed to make the most improvements."

Albert Alvarez, FMCSA transportation specialist officer at the Office of Research and Technology, blames the incremental improvement on the small sample size and noted that some individual drivers made significant progress. "The numbers would have been significantly better if the program had gone further," he says.

The most important aspect of the program may be the change in driver attitudes. Participants rated the program 4.65 on a scale of 5, and 96% said they were more conscious about the importance of eating properly and getting exercise.

Wellness proponents realize that they're trying to change behavior that has been ingrained in truck drivers and their companies since the industry began. They're also fighting against the unique rigors of the job. Longhaul drivers suffer high stress because they're paid by the mile, which doesn't motivate them to eat well and take exercise breaks.

Because education is crucial to changing behavior, the program has zeroed in on family participation, getting spouses involved in learning about diet and exercise in hopes of reinforcing the program's tenets.

The next step is to "train the trainer," with the goal of convincing company decision-makers to implement wellness programs in their workplaces and to provide the resources to do so.

Alvarez plans to sell the program as a bottom-line issue. "Drivers who engage in wellness programs have fewer crashes; they drive safer," he says. Alvarez also points to the link between wellness and alertness. "Healthy drivers have less fatigue," he adds.

More than 1,500 free wellness kits will soon be available to the truck and bus industry. The final report on the program is now being completed and will be published on the web.

"We're trying to change basic behavior," says Alvarez. "It isn't easy, and it'll take time."

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