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Managing drivers: Schooling for life

June 5, 2014
Training should be about ensuring success over the long haul

Fleets that train and engage their truck drivers with a view to the long haul can empower these essential professionals with the knowledge and insights they need to succeed, day after day and mile after mile.

Taking such a “lifelong learning” approach to managing drivers can help a fleet drive down the cost of everything from retention and recruitment, to risk management (including CSA scores), to equipment maintenance and even vehicle fuel costs.

“As a training organization, our mission is to train drivers so they have a safe and rewarding career in the trucking industry,” remarks James Patterson, director of the commercial division for consultancy PHH Arval’s Center for Transportation Safety.  “Without a doubt, fleets should take a lifelong learning approach to training all their drivers.”

Patterson contends this is needed, on the one hand, because “newer drivers are not as familiar with the equipment the company is operating, and they haven’t had the opportunity to understand the full scenarios of their job duties.”

On the other hand, he figures the lifelong method applies just as well to experienced drivers who “often become lackadaisical in their approach.  Continuously reminding them of the right safety driving methods is helpful in keeping them safe” as well as protecting the motoring public and reducing the fleet’s risk exposure.

“When a lifelong approach is taken, it helps reduce the liability to the carrier over the long term,” Patterson emphasizes.  “It’s important that companies keep their CSA scores low, and continuous driver training reduces the risk to safety, helping keep those scores down.”

No one claims authorship to the book on lifelong learning for drivers.  But in discussions with Fleet Owner, top managers at six progressive fleets relate how implementing this concept is helping ensure their drivers accomplish their critical mission in the safest and in the most efficient, productive and satisfying manner possible.

More than donuts

“Initial driver training is very important,” says John Elliott, president & CEO of  Taylor, MI–based Load One LLC.  “While companies strive to hire experienced drivers, we often have little knowledge of what if any training prior employers have done.   So starting off on the right foot is very important.”

The largest privately held full-service expedited carrier in the U.S., Load One relies on owner-operators to pilot all needed straight trucks and vans, but also runs a limited fleet of tractors operated by company drivers based in the metro Detroit area.

Elliot says the second essential is remedial training around violations.  “CSA scores do not improve by terminating a driver or eliminating a contractor,” he contends.

Rather, he argues that fleets should seek to “help educate drivers to correct these kinds of patterns.  This makes the industry safer as a whole for not only the company but the motoring public.

“Lifelong learning is the third training leg,” Elliott continues.  “I personally believe it is very important.  Investing in ongoing training and safety refreshers helps to keep safety on the forefront of everyone’s mind.  It shows your drivers that you care about their personal safety on the road and about them as an employee or contractor.”

He says taking a lifelong learning approach helps to improve safety performance and reduce risk.  “Oftentimes, these savings can be rolled back into incentive and reward programs so that they are beneficial to both the driver/contractor and the carrier. 

“That win-win mind-set pays dividends for the carrier,” Elliott continues.  “As part of an incentive program, it helps attract drivers who are looking to be rewarded for great results and it helps reinforce a safety culture in an organization.”

As its operators are constantly on the move, Load One conducts monthly safety training electronically with videos and testing.  Drivers are able to complete these online or in the cab via Omnitracs units.

“Last year,” Elliott relates, “we tied an incentive program for timely completion around this training.  We quickly leveraged the technology to deliver remedial training within hours of an incident vs. what may previously have taken days to weeks to complete.”

Load One also fosters online discussions about accidents and if they were preventable.  “We do this regularly through social media like Facebook.  It creates a platform for debate and gets people thinking.  It’s one more thing that helps reinforce a message that the company has a culture of safety.”

He regards Load One’s approach as “not a major overhaul, but a continual shift to more training more often—and making it more rewarding” for drivers. 

“You have to evolve,” says Elliott.  “Safety training is not always the most exciting or engaging subject for many drivers.  Working to keep content fresh and updated is critical.

“The old days of just showing the same VCR tape at an annual safety meeting while eating donuts is long gone for safety-minded progressive fleets,” he continues.  “You have to embrace change and continue to look for opportunities to put safety upfront.”

Reaching out

“We look at things before it’s too late,” is how Dennis Hilton, vice president for safety of CalArk, characterizes the fleet’s approach to driver training.  The Little Rock, AR-based truckload carrier operates nationwide and in Canada.  It employs 300 company drivers.

Hilton notes that CalArk “modernizes its fleet every two to three years and is committed to safety technology.”  Recent safety specs include air disc brakes on tractors and trailers and Bendix full-stability, collision-mitigation and lane-departure warning systems.

But at the heart of the safety program is extensive and continuing driver training.  “Every driver goes through a two and one-half  day orientation program conducted by director of safety Malea Hare,” says Hilton.

According to Hare, the program entails classroom instruction, an in-cab review of the fleet’s safety systems, and general hands-on training in the tractor.

“However,” Hare says, “there’s actually no ‘blanket’ period for our initial training.  If a driver is not getting something, we’ll work with him a little longer to ensure his confidence in the equipment.
“Everyone is road-tested during orientation,” she continues.  “That’s led us to dismiss candidates who were not comfortable using our technology.” 

Once drivers are onboard, they take part in weekly safety meetings. “We also monitor on-road behavior daily via critical-event thresholds for hard braking, excessive speed, etc., that are set in our Omnitracs systems,” advises Hilton.

“If something comes up, we reach out to the driver immediately to address it and discuss what should have been done,” he continues. “That data can be used as part of an accident investigation, which can benefit the drivers.  We also run a daily report based on electronic driver logs and will contact drivers right away about violations.

“Some drivers are surprised when they get a call from the safety department,” Hilton remarks.  “It’s a new experience for them.  And it demonstrates our company’s commitment to safety.”
“Every driver has my cell,” Hare notes. “By all we do, they can see that we care, which can be a big transition from other carriers.  We take all the measures we can to ensure they’re safe on the road.”

Per Hilton, CalArk has realized a 45% reduction in roadside inspections over the past 12 months—139 fewer to be exact—and he attributes that to “training, technology and oversight.”

On the road

The nation’s second-largest privately owned truckload carrier, Chattanooga, TN-based U.S. Xpress Enterprises and its subsidiaries provide transportation solutions throughout North America with some 7,000 tractors piloted by nearly 6,000 drivers.

The carrier is on record as “committed to being at the forefront of safety compliance, using comprehensive training for our staff and drivers and ensuring our trucks feature the latest safety innovations.”

Delivering on that promise “really starts with our in-house student training program for drivers,” says COO Eric Fuller.  He relates that U.S. Xpress had shuttered the program in 2008, “as the recession made it easier to hire only experienced drivers. But when the recession lifted, we re-instituted it.

“Now, we’re drawing a 50/50 mix of student and experienced drivers,” Fuller continues.  “We consider applicants to be student drivers if they’ve gone through school and gained their CDLs.  When they get here, student and experienced drivers alike first go through a three-day orientation program,” he continues.  “Each student driver then trains for 150 driving hours with one of our instructors.  After that, they can be upgraded to ‘experienced’ status.”

Fuller advises that the carrier is compensating for a difference between the typical applicants before the recession hit and many of the post-recession candidates.

“Pre-recession,” he explains, “those who came in knew the industry and what they were getting into.  Now, we’re seeing students who are more likely not to regard truck driving as their first choice and so they’re less familiar with the industry and the day-to-day lifestyle.

“The new crop generally does not grasp the reality,” he continues, “right down to basics such as getting their meals on the road.  So, four or five months ago, we added a day to orientation to present a special program on life skills for all new drivers.  We’ve tapped into our more experienced drivers to talk to the new hires about how to live out of a truck and to deal with interpersonal relationships, which are a big part of their job.”

Fuller reports the upshot is a rising retention rate for drivers who joined as new students.  “But we’ve realized that life skills are important for experienced drivers, too.  We’re seeing the program help make them more successful and that’s improving their retention as well.”

Beyond orientation, U.S. Xpress “constantly provides drivers with training information through our fleet managers, who also receive continuous training,” says Fuller.  “Each manager is assigned 45 to 50 drivers and is responsible for everything from dispatching them to resolving personnel issues.”

Although life on the road may be new to them, Fuller notes that student hires tend to be “much more tech-familiar.  That makes them receptive to online training and to electronic driver logs, which we’ve been on for two years.”

The fleet leverages its onboard DriverTech communications system to push training memos, videos and interactive lessons out to drivers.   Fuller says this lets drivers easily prep for and take tests that check their knowledge on key points being stressed by the carrier, which can then determine if additional training may be warranted.

Rolled out about six months ago, reports generated by a “driver dashboard” integrated with the company’s operating system enables U.S. Xpress to “take a predictive approach to assessing poor driving behaviors such as hard braking and speeding,” Fuller advises.

“This lets us talk to the driver before an issue gets out of hand,” he continues.  “Sometimes, what happened could concern turnover and that gets addressed, too.  We want to interact with drivers on safety matters before an accident occurs or a ticket results from their actions.”

Fuller reports “a lot of positive feedback from drivers on the life skills and the interactive online training.”  As for the dashboard reports, he says “some do find it a little ‘big-brotherish.’  With that in mind, our goal is to explain to them that it’s not about us catching them, but helping them to succeed in what is not an easy job or lifestyle.”

Not one time

“We want our associates to be engaged with their job and the company,” says Chris Reynolds, director of safety & security for Lexington, SC-based Southeastern Freight Lines (SEFL).  “Providing ‘lifelong learning’ for drivers is certainly part of our approach.  That includes availing them of the latest training opportunities as well as remedial training.”

One of the nation’s top providers of regional LTL services, SEFL employs some 1,100 linehaul and 2,600 P&D drivers. Reynolds notes that the majority of the linehaul drivers run between the carrier’s service centers and so are home every day or every other day while those on P&D runs are home daily.

Extensive training for each new driver begins with four days of orientation. That’s followed by the driver being “shadowed” out on the road by one of the fleet’s 100 driver-mentors, who performs ride-checks and gives feedback on driving performance.

“At orientation,” says Reynolds, “we teach everything drivers need to know.”  And the list of subject matter is long: company policies, HOS and CSA compliance, hazmat shipments, defensive driving, inclement weather, security, fatigue, and distracted driving.

“But this is not one-time training,” Reynolds stresses. “Monthly meetings are held for drivers that always include discussing a safety topic to reinforce proper behaviors.  It’s important to keep it all in front of them.  And, of course, we provide additional training whenever ‘bad habits’ crop up.
“In addition,” he continues, “there’s systematic follow-up after our orientation.  We review how new hires are doing three months and six months down the road.  This is done because the highest likelihood for having an accident is within the first two years.  But we keep a look out for how our experienced drivers are performing as well.”

The fleet sets “safety triggers” around preventable accidents. “When those situations occur,” Reynolds advises, “drivers receive a check-ride and are counseled on what they did and how to avoid doing so again.”

He says the goal of all the safety training, including remedial, is to get across that the “message is for them to be successful.  We feel everyone succeeds with this approach.”

Reynolds contends that “training is most impactful when it’s given in person, especially when it comes to discussing how safety affects the driver, the customer and the fleet.  We feel you can lose some of that by doing training all by computer.”

He notes that the fleet switched to electronic logs several years ago and “no one wants to go back.  This technology has truly made the job easier for drivers—and our CSA scores for HOS are the lowest among our peer group.”

Another indicator of the success SEFL  is having by constantly engaging drivers is that the average term of service with the carrier now stands at over 10 years.

“Turnover here runs less than 10% annually, which can be attributed in part to keeping drivers engaged with the operation and the people here,” Reynolds adds.  “Still, we want to cut that further.”

Best in class

“We make safety very visible here and we’ve moved driver management from outcome-based to predictive,” relates Tom Clark, senior vice president of operations for Con-way Freight.  The Ann Arbor, MI-based operation provides LTL transportation throughout the U.S. and Canada as well as cross-border service in Mexico.  It employs 14,000 drivers to pilot 8,600 trucks that are kept “rolling 24 hours.”

“Our number-one goal in mind is returning drivers home safely, and we accomplish that with training and with technology investments we’ve made in such things as anti-rollover and collision-mitigation systems,” says Clark.  “There’s no doubt that Con-way has the best technology in place to aid the driver.”

He advises that the most successful drivers the fleet hires are those who attain their CDL by completing the 12-week program at Con-way’s 60 approved school facilities.  “They account for 10% of our current drivers,” notes Clark.  “They are the safest operators here and have the highest retention rate.  That’s because our school develops drivers who are better educated and more engaged.”

The school system was set up in 2007, and Clark says it is predicated on “getting the right person with the right attitude in and then training him based on our expectations for driver behavior.” After graduating, these drivers work with a driver-trainer for two to four weeks (determined individually) to get a handle on the differences between the linehaul and P&D environment.
Drivers hired with previous experience go through a certification process and then spend two weeks in a truck with a veteran driver to become familiar with Con-way’s operations.

Once drivers are fully onboard, Clark says both they and Con-way benefit from how technology is deployed “to get the information as soon as possible that allows us to jump-start conversations with drivers to head off potential safety problems.

“You can’t have someone riding along in every truck to see how the driver operates,” he observes.  “But with electronic data/event recorders onboard, we’re alerted to drivers demonstrating unsafe actions before there’s a negative outcome.  Then the driver can get with a trainer and learn about the risk and how to avoid it.

“In the short time since this technology’s been deployed,” Clark reports, “drivers have reduced near misses as well as their severity scores.”

He notes that the onboard system also alerts drivers when they are wasting fuel and should be shifting progressively—and this alone has helped increase fuel efficiency.

“Drivers want to hit their top performance,” Clark contends, “and we are investing in technology to help them be the best performers.  It’s all about getting the best drivers and then giving them the best training and the best follow-up along with the best safety technology.”

Scoring it

“We had the concept of lifelong learning in mind when we set out to create an in-house continuous ‘scorecard’ system that would be  meaningful to drivers and linked directly to profitability,” says Jeremy Stickling, director of human resources for Hudson, IL-based Nussbaum Transportation Services.  The 48-state truckload carrier operates 250 trucks mainly across the Midwest.

Nussbaum’s operations and IT staff collaborated with an insurance consultant to develop and implement the automated Driver Excelerator program it rolled out fully in 2010.

According to Stickling, customized software feeds data from company systems into the Driver Excelerator. The program then produces weighted rankings to generate driver scores.  Those scores are determined by their performance in specific safety, operations and fuel efficiency/purchasing compliance categories.  The results are added up monthly to determine the driver’s score.

He points out the key benefit of Nussbaum’s approach is that “the numbers do the talking.  Drivers can see the scores are objective and based on accurate, real-time data.  They’re able to see where they’ve improved as well as any driving habits and decision-making that might be holding them back.

“They also understand where they rank among the fleet,” he continues.  And it all matters to them because how a driver is ranked qualifies him for the quarterly bonus—Gold, Silver or Bronze level—he’ll receive.”

Knowing where they stand and how they got there, though, is just the starting point.  “Each month,” Stickling says, “it’s the responsibility of our driver-managers to discuss results with drivers. From there, they provide feedback and advice to help them learn how they can increase their overall scores and their bonuses,” he continues.  “A driver seeking to improve can also be referred by his driver-manager to our on-staff trainer.  He views every driver as a talented professional and approaches them as such.”

Supplied with this meaningful information on their performance, “drivers have increased their scores steadily,” Stickling reports.  “We now define success by how many points drivers are gathering—as the more we pay in bonuses, the more money we’re saving.” He contends that the Driver Excelerator alone has developed an “engaged driving force that understands the direct connection between their performance and the success of the company—and how their extra efforts benefit them personally.”

Since implementing the program, Nussbaum has seen fuel efficiency increase, thanks to changes in driving habits, and fuel costs dip, as drivers are making wiser purchasing decisions.
“Job satisfaction has gone up, too, and that’s reduced driver churn,” Stickling points out.  “Our turnover rate is well below the national average.”

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