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The value of driver training doesn’t stop at hire date

Regular, ongoing instruction critical to operating best-in-class safety program

Truck driver safety is an ongoing process that involves engagement, awareness and targeted training. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Truck driver recruiting and retention have come into sharper focus in the last few years thanks to the supply chain disruptions the global economy has faced. 

At its recent management conference, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) said that despite rising pay, the industry is still facing a shortfall of about 78,000 drivers. That could jump to 160,000 by 2031, the ATA said.

“The good news is rising pay and other factors have helped the industry attract new drivers,” Bob Costello, ATA chief economist, said in a news release. “However, that influx is still not enough to make a substantive difference in the shortage — particularly in the long-haul, for-hire truckload sector, the part of the industry most acutely impacted by the shortage.”

There is no single reason causing the lack of drivers but rather a confluence of issues, including lifestyle, a high average age of the current driver population that leads to more retirements, the inability (or unwillingness) of some to pass drug tests, especially as marijuana remains a banned substance for commercial vehicle operators despite the growing number of states legalizing it, minimum driving ages, renewed focus on driving histories and criminal background checks.

What can carriers do?

While there are many ways carriers can address this issue, from increasing pay to more home time, one area sometimes overlooked is driver training and safety programs.

In 2020, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data showed 146,000 people were injured and 4,965 were killed in crashes involving large trucks. Additionally, a deep dive into litigation by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) found almost 300 accident-related lawsuits of over $1 million from 2014-19.

While data consistently shows that around 70% of all crashes involving a tractor-trailer are the fault of an automobile driver, professional drivers continue to lose jobs — and carriers paid a huge price for these incidents. Investing in a quality, ongoing driver training program is one way to mitigate some of that risk.

“The ATRI report notes that, as a result of large verdicts, ‘insurance companies are more selective in who they insure.’ This is exactly how the tort system is supposed to work to keep everybody safe,” the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA) noted back in 2020. “If a company isn’t performing required drug tests, for example, then insurance companies shouldn’t give them insurance and allow them to be on the road.”

The result, it would seem, is investing in quality professional driver training that doesn’t stop at the hire date.

According to Dustin Kufahl, vice president of driver training for the J.J. Keller Safe & Smart Training Program, any training program should consider the driver’s entire career — from entry-level training of rookies to reinforcement and updated training of seasoned veterans.

Building a successful driver training program starts with the onboarding process and continues through these five stages, Kufahl explained:

1.  Entry-level driver training

As of Feb. 7, 2022, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has instituted new entry-level driver training (ELDT) standards in order to obtain a Class A or B CDL or initial passenger, school bus or hazardous materials endorsement. The new rules require a specific course of instruction by providers that meet ELDT criteria and are listed on FMCSA’s Training Provider Registry. You can read more about the specifics of ELDT training here: ELDT rule changes dynamic for carriers running driver training programs.

2. Driver orientation training/onboarding

This process should apply to any driver new to a company, whether they are a rookie or veteran, as each company may have unique policies and procedures. Starting fresh is also an opportunity to address any bad habits that may exist, ensure there are no misunderstandings around compliance issues and reinforce the proper behaviors.

3. Finishing training

For new CDL holders (rookie drivers), the carrier should provide “finishing training.” This involves a combination of mentoring, monitoring and providing additional instruction to ensure their success, Kufahl said.

During this stage, a rookie driver may be paired with a veteran to serve as a mentor. This is someone that is a qualified road trainer. The mentor would administer an instructional plan that the rookie must meet before operating a vehicle on their own. This plan may include:

  • Successful execution of clearly stated behind-the-wheel, performance-based skills.
  • A specific number of hours behind the wheel.
  • Successful completion of nondriving tasks.
  • Proper handling of situations not related to driving,

4. Experienced driver training

For professional drivers in a carrier’s employ for more than a year, the driver training process needs to take on a new dimension. The training shifts into a reinforcement approach, with communication of the organization’s ongoing dedication to safety and wellness a central tenet.

According to Kufahl, this level of training is a good time for reviewing safety and compliance topics and ensuring drivers understand regulations and company policies. Carriers may also become aware of bad driving habits, and this stage represents a time to reinforce proper driving techniques as needed to limit bad behaviors.

When it comes to scheduling training, Kufahl advised doing so on a quarterly or monthly basis based on the driver’s or organization’s needs. Topics that should be addressed include updates on company policy, regulatory changes and operational issues that may arise. Driver-specific issues should also be addressed, including training issues related to specific vehicle types or cargo hauled that may be unique to each driver.

“You need to take a good look at and assess your operations,” Kufahl said. “For example, do your drivers operate in adverse conditions, such as snow and ice? If so, this type of defensive driving training should be conducted every fall to reinforce safe-driving practices. Has a new issue cropped up, such as drivers not completing a DVIR [driver vehicle inspection report] properly when required? Then this type of training should be included in your next scheduled session.”

5. Corrective action training

The final stage can be the most critical in limiting exposure to nuclear verdicts. Corrective action training (CAT) is used to address and rectify problem behaviors. It also shows that the carrier is serious about safety and proactively engaged in trying to limit unsafe behaviors.

CAT should occur as soon as possible following the identification of unsafe driving behaviors,  issues or problems. It is important to implement CAT when issues are minor before they escalate into a major problem that leads to an accident or violation.

All CAT should be tailored to a driver’s specific problem or issue and it needs to be uniform across the driver population. An issue for a 30-year driver should be addressed the same as it would for a rookie driver, with escalating levels of discipline if issues continue.

Kufahl identified a few key tenets of a CAT program:

  • Implement an active monitoring program that identifies candidates and subject areas of safety and compliance that need attention.
  • Use citations, accidents and insurance claims to identify drivers and areas that need reinforcement or correction.
  • Select a means of instruction. This should be brief (no more than five to 10 minutes in duration), focused on a specific issue, and should occur as soon as possible following the triggering incident.
  • It shows drivers your company is serious about safety and compliance and that correction is necessary.
  • Continue to monitor the driver to verify the training is working, which again shows the organization is serious about safety and compliance, as well as providing proof of a change in behavior.

Making a driver training program work

Driver training programs are effective ways to ensure company policies and procedures, and safe-driving practices are reinforced with drivers. 

But no two training programs should be alike — whether that be between carriers or even within a single operation. Each driver is different and, as such, carriers should tailor programs to match their preferred — and most effective — learning style, Kufahl said.

“Not all trainees learn in the same way,” Kufahl said. “Providing a message by using various instructional methods can assist in making sure your drivers retain important information long after their training has concluded.”

To help this, Kufahl pointed to several styles that can be utilized in the training process:

  • Visual: Trainers may utilize infographics, charts, diagrams and other visual aids and presentations.
  • Auditory: Trainers may use participation and observation in group discussions and may utilize a combination of recorded and in-person spoken lectures.
  • Read/write: Some drivers may learn best by reading. For them, textbooks, handbooks, workbooks, handouts or written instructions may be the most-effective means to communicate the message.
  • Kinesthetic: Some drivers may learn best through the use of body movement and touch. In these cases, trainers may implement programs that mimic the physical steps of a task and employ role-play and acting-out scenarios.

During the driver’s tenure with the organization, safety should remain a priority and be reinforced on a regular basis. Providing ongoing and regular training sessions, continuing efforts to convey the importance of safety in the organization through the effective use of posters, newsletters and other electronic forms of communication and remaining engaged with drivers leads to building a best-in-class safety program with continuing education at its core, Kufahl said.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]