A truck driver steps out into the chill of a fall morning and cranks his 3-ton truck into noisy life. Brushing the leaves off the open seat with his hat, he climbs aboard. "Still looks strange not to see the back of that old horse ahead of me," he laughs to himself. "Well, giddy-up anyhow, we've got milk to deliver." As the chain drive engages and the solid rubber tires pick up speed bouncing over

A truck driver steps out into the chill of a fall morning and cranks his 3-ton truck into noisy life. Brushing the leaves off the open seat with his hat, he climbs aboard. "Still looks strange not to see the back of that old horse ahead of me," he laughs to himself. "Well, giddy-up anyhow, we've got milk to deliver." As the chain drive engages and the solid rubber tires pick up speed bouncing over the dirt road, it's impossible for this 1906 driver to see around the bend ahead, much less into the future of trucking.

Imagine him finding a model-year-2001 Class 8 conventional parked in the yard the next morning with a 53-ft. refrigerated trailer behind it, ready to join the other 7-million-plus trucks crisscrossing the country. Odds are he'd know what it was, but not how to operate it. Almost everything has changed. Everything that is, except the driver himself. He's still the same version-1.0 human being who first took hold of a truck steering wheel about 100 years ago, when driver training was an afternoon's work and safety meant not running into anything.

TRAINING 2000 While people are still basically the same, men and women who want to drive trucks today have a good deal more to learn than their pioneering predecessors in order to become safe and productive truck operators. As a result, training has evolved into an ongoing process that is essential to safety and increasingly significant to a fleet's bottom line.

"Safety programs are an expense, but if you don't have a good safety program, it comes right off the bottom line," says Larry Jones, director of safety for C. R. England. "You also run the risk of compliance problems with DOT, which can jeopardize your ability even to stay in business. At C. R. England, we believe that good training is essential to safety."

According to Jones, the fleet currently operates five driver training schools of its own and more are in the planning stages. They also accept graduates from certain outside schools that meet their training criteria. "We hire about 100 drivers a week," he explains. "Candidates are screened carefully before we accept them into the program, which starts with 12 days of classroom and in-truck training.

"If candidates successfully complete that, they move on to 20,000 miles of over-the-road training with a qualified instructor," he continues. "The last step in the process is what we call the `upgrade' program. Basically, it's two days of testing and evaluation - a final exam on paper and in a truck.

"If drivers pass, they're `solo qualified' and eligible to get their own trucks," Jones explains. "It's a long process, but we don't think we can do a good job with much less - and we can't afford not to do a good job."

"We see a very positive correlation between putting good drivers out there on the highway and the bottom line," agrees Craig Lynch, driver finishing manager for U.S. Xpress Enterprises. "Training not only helps to produce safer drivers, it builds the kind of professional pride and integrity that contributes to reducing driver turnover, as well as lowering insurance rates, reducing accident-related and occupational injury costs, and even attracting and retaining good customers."

Like C. R. England, U.S. Xpress not only has its own training program for new drivers, but also a post-graduate "finishing program" to give students who have completed an approved driver training course an additional 240 hours of behind-the-wheel training. "Basically, the finishing program is about six weeks of on-the-job training with a qualified individual," Lynch says.

U.S. Xpress has been working with the Professional Truck Drivers Institute, an organization that establishes commercial driver training standards and offers certification to courses that meet or exceed them, to certify the finishing program. The fleet's curriculum for new drivers is already PTDI-certified.

"We're working with PTDI now on certification of our finishing program," Lynch says. "By the end of the year, we should be fully certified across both training programs. Although we don't have enough hard data yet to confirm results, we're already noticing that students from PTDI-certified schools, our own and others, tend to stay with us longer and have fewer accidents."

Tim Heerdt, risk control manager for the St. Paul Companies, agrees. The Minnesota-based firm insures many of the nation's larger fleets. "Most losses are driver-related, not equipment-related," he says, "so we take a very hard look at what companies do in terms of training; their rates reflect it.

"A lot of the large fleets we insure hire a fair number of their drivers out of training schools," he explains. "We encourage them to draw from PTDI-certified schools, although it's not a requirement. We also expect fleets to give their drivers some on-the-job-training.

"Typically, fleets that aren't serious about safety and careful about which schools they hire from pay about 25% more in premiums than other similar-sized operations. And I have personally seen cases where the difference was much greater than that," Heerdt continues. "Of course, the real goal is safety. We all stand to gain if there are fewer accidents."

"We believe that a trained driver is a safer driver," agrees Mike McCombs, vp-safety, Western Region, for Great West Casualty Co., headquartered in South Sioux City, Neb. Like Heerdt, Lynch and Jones, McCombs believes that all training is not equal. "It's clear to me that all training is not alike. It has to be meaningful and adequate. The PTDI standards have a documented record of success, so we offer them as guidelines to fleets seeking to identify or establish good training programs.

"We're also strong believers in recurrent training," he adds. According to McCombs, Great West Casualty recommends refresher training at least twice a year for all drivers, and thinks four times a year would be better. "When we say recurrent training, we don't mean popping a video into the VCR," he qualifies. "We mean real, hands-on work with a certified instructor, followed by testing. It's also important for drivers to be observed by a safety director in so-called `check' rides, especially after an accident."

HIGH-TECH TOOLS Accidents, of course, are the most serious potential consequence of lack of training and/or lack of experience. But at some point, all new drivers have to solo. Driving simulators may soon offer these new drivers and veterans in need of continued training a way to get the on-road time they need without the associated risk.

Utah-based I-Sim Corp., for example, develops and produces a variety of vehicle simulators to help enhance safety and improve driver performance. "We work to help all drivers get better at what they do," says Darren Somsen, marketing programs manager. Formed in October 1994, I-Sim offers a range of simulators for driver training in the trucking, military, research and emergency vehicle markets.

Three different simulators are designed to help truck operators do everything from perfecting their shifting skills to dealing with shifting loads, according to Somsen. The "TranSim" transmission simulator, for example, is designed to create the experience of shifting 140 different transmission styles and 280 different engines from a variety of manufacturers, he notes.

"With the TranSim, drivers are sitting in a truck seat and working a real transmission while the system simulates varying loads and driving conditions," says Somsen. "It provides an extremely realistic shifting experience, responding in feel and sound to the driver's input." I-Sim's "TranSim VS" product adds a television screen to the system to also give students the experience of interacting with traffic and responding to changing driving conditions.

For a more complete immersion experience, I-Sim offers training in their Mark-I simulator. "The Mark-I features a Freightliner cab," he says. "With the simulator system and the cab, we can create the experience of driving during the day or night, in different weather conditions, on various highway types and grades, and under various loads. The system also automatically monitors and records a driver's responses so you can measure performance improvements or pinpoint areas that would benefit from more training."

There are over 30 TranSim simulators in use in private driving schools and community colleges around the country, according to Somsen. So far, the Mark series simulators are available for use only at I-Sim's school in Denver, where a variety of driver training programs are offered. "Simulator training is efficient. One hour in a simulator equals four hours of training on the road," he says, "because we can offer more repetitions of the task and better feedback."

By the end of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA) also hopes to complete work on a simulator - in fact, the most sophisticated driving simulator in the country - the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS). This one-of-a-kind $60-million system, ten years in development, is close to completion, according to a NHTSA spokeswoman.

The NADS will be operated and maintained by the University of Iowa, but accessible to researchers such as NHTSA that want to learn more about the factors affecting driving safety. "The NADS will allow us to do research without exposing test candidates and others to unnecessary risks," she explains. "For example, we will be able to measure the effects on driving performance of distractions, drowsiness, alcohol or drug impairment, or the use of navigation systems and other devices."

The three-ton simulator goes nowhere fast, enabling researchers to also study driver crash avoidance behavior by measuring how drivers respond to changing highway environments, traffic conditions, and hazardous circumstances, with the added benefit of experimental control capability.

According to NHTSA, the system will even enable investigators to set up the conditions associated with actual accidents and study the response possibilities and limitations of the various participants and vehicles involved.

Data from the NADS may prove extremely valuable in helping to design the driver training programs and regulations of the future, as well as providing important information to help guide vehicle development.

MULTIPLE RESOURCES "Fleets tend to think that they're out there on their own when it comes to safety and training, but that's just not the case," says McCombs. "Training and educational resources are available from the government, state and national trucking associations, schools and universities, equipment manufacturers, organizations like PTDI and insurance companies. There are almost certainly resources right in a fleet's own backyard."

"I think a lot of the safety improvements have come from the industry collectively taking steps to improve safety," adds Heerdt. "Improvement is an ongoing process. Ten years from now we'll still be looking for ways to make things better, to make things safer."

Now that's a perspective that drivers and fleets today or 100 years ago could all understand and appreciate.

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