21st century driver training

Jan. 1, 2006
If fleet owners had their wish, all truck operators would expertly maneuver accident-proof vehicles along trouble-free highways, while other (likewise skillful) motorists waved their thanks as they passed by. While that wish has yet to be granted, technology is helping fleets to improve safety and performance in more practical ways, by making it easier to train and monitor drivers. Today, carriers

If fleet owners had their wish, all truck operators would expertly maneuver accident-proof vehicles along trouble-free highways, while other (likewise skillful) motorists waved their thanks as they passed by. While that wish has yet to be granted, technology is helping fleets to improve safety and performance in more practical ways, by making it easier to train and monitor drivers.

Today, carriers are adding tools such as computer-based training, driving simulators and onboard video monitors to their driver education programs in an effort to deliver more and better training and performance feedback. It may not be a miracle, but the results are very encouraging just the same.

“It would be wonderful if we could put a safety angel on every driver's shoulder,” observes Donald Osterberg, v.p. safety and training for Wisconsin-based Schneider National, Inc. “The best we can offer as fleet owners and trainers, however, is to help our drivers become as professional as they can be. That is the real road to safety. There is a higher likelihood that drivers will respond properly if they are well trained.”


Osterberg is not just speaking theoretically. Schneider is in the process of installing motion-based driving simulators at its six training academies, 55 simulators in all. The simulators are from MPRI Ship Analytics, a part of L3 Communications. They combine a fully operational truck cab (complete with working instrumentation, gauges and controls) with digital simulation technology to create training scenarios as close to the real world as MPRI can make them.

The images are projected onto three screens to create a wide forward field of vision while two LCD side “mirrors” simulate the rear view. Audio and vibration systems are designed to add accurate driving noise and feel to the experience. Users can select from more than 12 transmissions and 12 engines, and a closed-circuit television allows observers to watch the drivers from the operator console.

According to Osterberg, driving in the simulators truly does fell “real.” “You can emerge white-knuckled from a session in the simulator,” he says. “With the simulator, we can create all sorts of challenging driving situations, such as dark, rain, snow, fog or ice. We can match remedial training sessions as closely as possible to a real event a driver was involved in.

“The simulator even allows us to tape drivers so that they can see how they reacted and do a self-critique of their performance with an instructor. It is very effective,” he adds. “We are already seeing improved safety and driver retention with the simulators.”

Werner Enterprises is also using simulator technology, in this case to evaluate driver skills. According to the company, a six-axis, full-motion simulator designed by Lock-heed Martin allows training center instructors to evaluate a driver's strengths and weaknesses without exposing the driver, the equipment or fellow motorists to harm. “It is so realistic, many drivers find themselves trying to talk to an oncoming rig on the CB radio,” notes the company.


Because of its flexibility and affordability, many other carriers are adding computer-based training to their driver education mix, not just to train entry-level drivers, but to provide ongoing “refresher course” training, as well as remedial training. There are a variety of programs from which to choose.

Instructional Technologies, Inc. (ITI), for example, offers a complete series of interactive lessons called TREAD-1, based upon the federal guidelines for entry-level driver instruction. About 40 lessons are currently available, some in Spanish language versions. If drivers can come to a terminal location, ITI provides new Apple computers (eMacs) as part of the package. Many of the courses are also available online in an option called Pro-TREAD, originally developed for Ryder Fleet Management Solutions.

Ryder offers Pro-TREAD to its customers on a subscription or pay-per-use basis, according to Patrick Lydon, sr. manager safety and loss prevention for the company, as well as using it to help train its own 6,000 drivers. “Now when we are out meeting with our customers, we don't just provide trucks, we ask about their training, too — What are you doing for new-hires? What do you do for on-going training? How about remedial training?” he says. “Now we have a product that can help them do all those things, and so far the response from our customers has been fantastic.

“One of the things about online training that we really appreciate is the ability to quickly update content from a single source, say for hours-of-service training,” Lydon adds. “You don't have to ask locations to replace tapes and you can guarantee that the next person taking the training will get the most current content. I believe computer-based training will continue to grow over the next few years,” he predicts. “It is a very good tool for smaller as well as larger fleets.”

Jim Brdicka, owner of Premiere Risk Management in Lisle, IL, is such a believer in TREAD-1 that he is providing the training for one of his major customers, Eagle Express Lines. “Eagle Express Lines is a mail contractor with about 400 vehicles,” says Brdicka. “In July when it was time to renew their insurance, I said one of the things I'd be willing to do was put in some money toward TREAD-1 training for their drivers. Eagle is a good company and they'll use the lessons, so they will win and so will we,” he says. “They are going to begin by using it for new driver orientation and remedial training.”

One of the country's oldest and most respected driver training organizations, Smith System, has also recently added computer-based training to their core, instructor-led program. “Classroom and on-road training is at the heart of what we do and we do not plan to replace that,” says Frank Powers, v.p. sales for Smith System. “The online training we now offer is especially suited to introduction, refresher or remedial training. We believe it is one more service we can provide.”

The newest Web-based courses from Smith System, Forward Motion and Backing, are part of their Five Keys to Safe Driving e-Learning Series and are designed to help drivers learn how to avoid collisions. Both are available in truck and small vehicle versions. Upon completion of each course, the learner takes a test and results are stored in a database available to company management.


Some safety directors will tell you that even the very best driver training programs reach new heights if you can add routine performance feedback — clear information about how well drivers are actually doing out on the highway far from the instructor's watchful eye and checklist. Global positioning satellites, engine data recorders, and even collision avoidance systems have been invaluable in providing glimpses into that very private world of the truck cab. Risky behaviors such as speeding, hard braking, poor shifting habits and straying out of route are not secrets anymore.

In some cases, this driver feedback has been a secondary benefit from systems designed primarily to manage maintenance or improve asset utilization. In other cases, however, driver monitoring is the primary function of the technology, as is the case with DriveCam, for example.

The DriveCam video recording system was developed to continuously record what is taking place inside and outside the truck cab. Recordings are not saved unless a “trigger event” occurs, typically a four-G event like hard braking or swerving. Then the system saves the recording for the ten seconds prior to and after the incident. “If that four-G trigger is exceeded, the driver probably had to respond abruptly to something he or she did not anticipate,” explains Bruce Moeller, DriveCam president and CEO. “The system captures that event.”

In November 2005, DriveCam introduced its Managed Services, which adds expert analysis to the in-vehicle video and playback software, all for a single per-vehicle monthly fee. “Consistent driver feedback is the answer to lowering fleet operating costs and improving safety,” says Moeller. “Our trained experts know what to look for and what works to prevent future incidents. We are so confident that it will lower both the frequency and severity of claims and accident investigation costs by at least 30%, that we guarantee the results.

“The DriveCam technology applies pure science to changing driver behavior,” he continues. “It is not theory; it works. People perform better if they know someone is watching, that what they do matters and that there are consequences. They become more cautious over time. We designed our software so that companies can look at the root causes of events-anger, inattention, eating while driving, etc. Fleet can also look at incidents by lane of travel, by location or by region to help identify trouble spots,” he adds.

Using technology to help monitor driver performance and deliver more personalized training is enabling many fleets to improve safety and reduce costs. Although a golden era of accident-free vehicles on trouble-free highways may not be on the horizon just yet, these new tools are helping the industry take the next important step in that direction.

Editor's note: The current issue of the Truckload Carrier's Association “Safety Connection” newsletter, bound into this issue of Fleet Owner, includes more information on technology and training.

Technology-assisted driver monitoring

One fleet's experiences

Fifty-five year-old McBride Electric is an electrical contracting company with facilities in six states: California, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas and Colorado. They operate about 300 vehicles, mostly one-ton trucks with utility bodies and vans, each logging some 15,000 to 20,000 miles per year according to Julie Gasper, director of risk management. Like many other risk managers, Gasper had systems in place for screening and training employees and regularly monitoring driver records for any problems, but she wanted more. Specifically, Gasper was looking for a way to tell what was really happening on the road.

“At McBride, we do everything we can up front to make sure we are hiring the right people to begin with,” Gasper says. “We have an evaluation matrix we use for screening and driver retention and I download my loss history every month and compare it to the matrix. We also do driver training for all new employees, using a program from Interactive Driver Training.

“To me, a good driver monitoring system was the missing piece of the puzzle,” she continues. “Without that, we really had no way of knowing how well we were doing in our hiring and training programs unless something happened. We needed a system that would help us identify problem behaviors very early on, in time to take corrective action and avoid possible accidents or incidents.”

Last May, McBride installed DriveCam in-vehicle video monitors in their Denver- and San Diego-based fleets and, according to Gasper, they plan to roll the program out across the rest of the fleet in the spring of 2006. The DriveCam system continuously records what is taking place inside and outside the truck cab. Recordings are not saved unless a “trigger event” occurs, typically a four-G event like hard braking or swerving. Then the system saves the recording for the ten seconds prior to and after the incident.

“We presented DriveCam to our drivers as a tool primarily intended to help make sure that they were not wrongly accused of some dangerous driving behavior and secondarily as a way for the company to help reduce its losses,” Gasper recalls. “Most of them responded very positively right from the beginning. We have an open-book management style here and continuously educate employees on how their work impacts the bottom line, so this fit right in. For the first forty-five days, we also did not take any real disciplinary measures, just called drivers in and counseled them.”

Although the DriveCam system has been in place less than a year, Gasper reports that the company is already seeing safety improvements as well as reduced wear and tear on the vehicles. “We are already seeing a significant decrease in recorded events like hard-braking,” she notes, “at least a 30% improvement, in fact.

“Last summer, we got a call from someone who said that one of our trucks caused him to run off the road,” Gasper illustrates. “He said he'd been injured. The manager who took the call here told him all about DriveCam and said he'd review the video, and if our driver had indeed done something wrong we would call him back and do what was right to take care of him. The caller just hung up before we could even get a number. We reviewed the video just the same and our driver had done nothing wrong. In fact, he wasn't even near the reported scene of the accident.

“McBride has maintenance contracts with a number of shops and our mechanics are also telling us that they are seeing better tire wear and that our brakes are lasting a lot longer,” she continues. “That is because our drivers are not doing things like following too closely and slamming on the brakes.

”There is a cost for not implementing systems like this,” Gasper offers. “It is one of those things we feel like we can't afford not to use. It looks like we'll see a payback on the systems in less than one year. The very best part, of course, is that we are taking our good electricians and also turning them into good drivers.”

Technology tools for trainers

While instructor-led classroom work and actual on-road training are still the core elements of driver education programs, some fleets are turning to technology to help them do more (and even better) driver training and performance monitoring. Here are some of the tools available:

Online driver assessment and training systems:

  • Carrier's Edge from Cranial Expansion (www.carriersedge.com): A package of online training courses intended for new and experienced drivers, including defensive driving, transportation of dangerous goods, border crossing, etc. Program includes management reporting and tracking.

  • Driver Safety and Performance Assessments for Long- and Short-Haul Drivers from Scheig Associates, Inc. (www.scheig.com): Assessment tools designed to help fleets screen in the best driver candidates by benchmarking their responses against those of recognized top-performing drivers. Assessments are taken online and scored instantly.

  • Fleet Driver Safety Course from DDC USA Fleet Driving School (www.ddcusafleet.com): An interactive, web-based, defensive driving course featuring full-motion video segments.

  • FleetFit from CogniFit Mind Fitness Solutions (www.cognifit.com): PC-based tools designed to assess and train core cognitive skills critical to safe driving and other tasks, such as judging speed and distance. Recent studies involving driving instructors also suggest that FleetFit may be useful as an accident predictor.

  • Safe Driving e-Learning Series from Smith System Driver Improvement Institute, Inc. (www.smith-system.com): New web-based safe driving courses from one of the country's oldest fleet driver training organizations. Courses include Forward Motion and Backing in both truck and small vehicle versions. Lessons feature video as well as still shots and include a text version of the audio content at the bottom of the screen.

  • TREAD-1/Pro-TREAD from Instructional Technologies, Inc. (www.tread1.com): A series of computer-delivered, interactive lessons designed to teach all the specific skills required of professional truck operators from defensive driving to maintaining a driver log, driving in snow and ice, how to jump start a battery, etc. TREAD-1 lessons are taken on iMac computers (provided by the company). Pro-TREAD lessons are a web-based version of the same content. The system includes student tracking and management reporting. Some lessons are also available in Spanish.

  • Virtual Fleet Risk Manager from Interactive Driving Systems (www.vfrm.net): A suite of technology-enabled products designed to help companies manage their “occupational road risk” via various integrated driver assessment, training and performance management tools. Some components, such as the front end driver assessment and training tools, are available in British, American, Australian, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Spanish versions.

Driving simulators

  • Mark III Motion-Based Driver Training Simulator from MPRI Ship Analytics, L3 Communications (www.shipanalytics.com): Combines a fully operational truck cab with digital simulation technology delivered via high-resolution projection imaging on three screens. Users can select from a variety of engines and transmissions as well as a variety of visual environments and training scenarios.

  • Haul Truck Training Simulator from Fifth Dimension Technologies (http://mining.5dt.net): For fleets operating large off-highway heavy haul trucks, this simulator is designed to teach trainees how to drive and how to position the truck for loading and dumping.

Driver performance monitoring

DriveCam and DriveCam Managed Services from DriveCam,Inc. (www.drivecam.com): Combines in-vehicle video, playback software, expert review and driver coaching to help fleets mitigate risk by improving driver behavior and assessing liability in the event of an accident.

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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