Getting up to speed on new driver training options

When the Vancouver Sun reported that a local bus driver had been assaulted by an unruly passenger this summer, readers might have thought it was an unusual occurrence. But according to a spokesman for the bus company, there were 123 assaults on drivers as of mid-October.

The driver, working for Surrey, B.C.-based Coast Mountain Bus Co., was on a late-night/ early-morning shift when it happened. The driver kindly let the passenger ride for free, but the passenger soon became disruptive. The driver stopped the vehicle and told the passenger to get off. Then the passenger punched the driver, and smashed the windows.

According to Derek Zabel, representing the bus company, by October, drivers have received a range of verbal threats, minor injuries, and more serious injuries requiring hospital visits.

The upshot: “We’re actually seeing a decrease in assaults because of a number of programs we’ve undertaken,” he says.

That Coast Mountain Bus needed to implement specific programs to address operator safety exemplifies the new world of driver training. More than ever, work health and safety specialists are applying novel techniques to ensure fleet drivers working for their respective organizations are safe in a variety of ways. Sources say that some of the new programs could be just the beginning of a whole new attitude towards driving and safety.

Keeping violence off buses
Zabel says Coast Mountain Bus has implemented a number of safety programs. For instance, working with the CAW, which represents Coast Mountain’s bus drivers, the company implemented “violence in the workplace” committees, where drivers, managers and union representatives discuss and develop policies.

The company also increased security at stations, and implemented a radio-GPS system that lets drivers quickly communicate with security personnel and emergency response teams if something happens.

Assaults have been dropping. In 2006, there were 240. In 2007, there were 226, and last year, 140.

But 2009 is showing a slight uptick. By October 2008, Coast Mountain Bus had counted 114 assaults — fewer than the 123 by October 2009. And although the number of assaults decreased from 2006 to 2008, Zabel says the company has been seeing a higher percentage of violent assaults, those that end with a driver going to hospital.

Part of the problem might be the fact that people charged with assaulting drivers could get away with light punishment. In one case, an assailant was sentenced to a few months’ home probation, Zabel says.

“We’d like to see a mandatory criminal penalty for anyone assaulting an operator,” he says, adding that Coast Mountain Bus is lobbying justice officials on that point. “For us, one assault is too many.”

The safety mechanisms go hand in hand with the comprehensive training courses that Coast Mountain Bus drivers must take: six weeks of how-to; refresher courses; remedial lessons when required; specific route training; spot performance checks on the job; et cetera.

The company says its award program is no accident — it recognizes more than 300 drivers each year for reaching various safe-driving milestones; about a dozen each year claim the 30-years-of-safe-driving prize.

Delivering safety
United Parcel Service (UPS) is another business that recognizes safe driving. Earlier this year, the delivery company welcomed a group of drivers into its Circle of Honour for drivers who’ve achieved 25 years or more of safe driving.

According to Stuart Morrish, district health and safety manager for UPS Canada in Mississauga, Ont., Circle of Honour is part and parcel of the company’s extensive driver training practices. He explains that UPS employs a program designed to arm drivers with specific skills, including the ability to anticipate road situations, safely manoeuvre through dense and fast-moving traffic, and ensure other drivers understand what the big brown truck is about to do next.

“We are what we call a billboard to everyone else,” Morrish says. “If you’re following me, you can’t see through me, and you can’t see around me because I’m such a large commercial vehicle. Signaling well in advance warns people what we’re going to do.”

UPS has been training its drivers since the 1940s, and although the general principles of the training haven’t changed, the applications certainly have. As Morrish points out, traffic volumes are much higher today, which means there are more chances for crashes.

“With the increased volume of traffic and everything being rush-rush-rush in this day and age, our drivers need to apply patience. They can’t rush through the traffic and get where they’re going safely. They need to follow their route, which we plan, and that will get them through safely.”

This can be a real challenge when everyone else seems to have the pedal to the metal as they go about their lives. “People just seem to want to rush,” Morrish says. “They fill their schedules up all day. As soon as they encounter a hiccup in their schedules, they rush to catch up. When you rush, you start to cut corners. Safety is usually the first thing that people put on the back burner.”

Think first
And yet, organizational driver training seems to be ramping up. For instance, Thinking Driver, a driver training operation in Surrey, B.C., has started offering courses geared to specific driving situations. A couple of years ago, the company rolled out its commercial four-wheel drive program, giving newcomers to locations such as western-Canada’s oil fields the wherewithal to conduct rugged rigs over all sorts of terrain.

“The commercial four wheel drive program targets people who’ve been supplied a four-wheel drive vehicle by their work, but do not necessarily have any experience in it,” says Spencer McDonald, president of Thinking Driver. “Our program begins with the basics — this is a four-wheel drive vehicle; this is how it accomplishes four-wheel drive; what are the specific differences between this and the car you would drive normally.”

The goal of this training is to make sure drivers understand the nuances of four-wheel drive vehicles — all the better for safe driving on and off road. But this isn’t the only new course that Thinking Driver offers. Tapping the “green” shift towards environmental friendliness, the company has developed programs to help fleet drivers save on gas and reduce the carbon footprint of their vehicles.

“This very afternoon I had a conversation with someone from Metro Vancouver (the regional government),” McDonald says. “They’re asking us to come out this December and pilot an eco-efficient driving program.”

This could be the beginning of an important trend, McDonald says. “I think we’re going to continue to see a shift towards more eco-efficient driver training elements in the courses that we see. I think we’re going to see consumers demanding that – especially for new driver training. Our kids are going to have a cleaner motoring experience.”

Start young
Speaking of kids, Young Drivers is well known for its new-driver training programs — but the firm could soon come to be known for its application of a new driver-training technique, focused less on practical skills and more on brain development.

Young Drivers is one of the first organizations to offer CogniFit, a computer-based program that assesses nine cognitive capabilities, including focus, hand-eye coordination, short-term memory and distance assessments. An initial CogniFit test is the starting point of a comprehensive program for each individual, tailored to address the driver’s particular abilities and deficiencies.

As a Canadian Occupational Health and Safety magazine reporter tries his hand at a couple of CogniFit tests (the reporter performed well on one and terribly on the other), Peter Christianson, president of Young Drivers, explains that the company is about to begin a study of about 12,000 Young Driver students to see how the CogniFit program affects their ability to drive safety. What’s more, the company now offers a business-focused version called FleetFit for more mature drivers, although Young Drivers hasn’t had any FleetFit customers yet.

“The recession just stopped a lot of forward momentum on the product,” Christianson says, adding that he’s hopeful that the situation will change now that there seem to be signs of an economic recovery on the horizon.

In the next six months or so, Young Drivers plans to add an e-learning component to its corporate-focused Collisionfree driver training courses, so participants can take at least a portion of the course at their own pace, and according to their own schedules. After all, the participants often have plenty of things to do already. “They don’t have the time to come into a classroom all day,” Christianson says.

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. You can contact him at [email protected].