Training that pays off

How many carriers operate driver training programs so rigorous that half their trainees wash out? North America Van Lines of Fort Wayne, Ind., runs such a program, says John McFann, the company’s project administrator in the driver services department. McFann spoke about NAVL’s driver training program at a recent truck safety seminar in Pittsburg.

“Technology will play an increasing role in training,” McFann says. But the basics haven’t – and won’t – change, he suggests. NAVL’s training program exceeds the Professional Truck Driver Institute requirements on hours behind the wheel, McFann says, because the company found the rate of improvement from training declines with a decline in the number of hours spent in the program. The fleet will throw out a driver if he can’t cut it in training, and nearly 50 percent fail to make the grade.

McFann outlined NAVL’s philosophy toward training:

  • Remedial training has a safety benefit. And, it’s cheaper to retrain a driver than to fire and replace him as replacing one driver can cost up to $7,000.
  • Hands-on is better than the classroom phase. “Don’t let operations screw up a good training program by cutting it short,” McFann advises. NAVL drivers get four days of intensive, on-road training.
  • Surprisingly, experienced drivers profit more from a finishing program than novice drivers do. Experienced drivers had 35 percent fewer accidents after the training, and the average accident cost dropped 50 percent, McFann says. Novice drivers’ per-accident cost dropped 14 percent. And, training has resulted in a 4.7 percent improvement in fuel economy in one year – a saving of $3 million for an $80,000 investment.
  • There’s no substitute for instructor quality and competence. NAVL’s ongoing, train-the-trainer program works because “it’s the quality of the instructor and his confidence that makes the difference,” McFann says. “Those who can do can teach.” Testing revealed that the trainers’ mistakes were similar to the students’ errors.
  • Simulators can uncover bad habits and behaviors. NAVL found, for example, that dangerous drivers drive too fast for conditions much more often than they exceed the speed limit. They also tend to monitor their speed by sound. Simulators also reveal that drivers naturally stand on the brakes and crank the wheel in an emergency and will often shift to the left lane without checking mirrors. Simulators show the driver what to do in emergencies – without accident damage.

A commitment to safety training can be expensive, McFann concedes. “We must convince CEOs of the value of safety training. One way of doing that is to remind them that safe driving is good advertising for the fleet, while one bone-headed driver can undo a major ad campaign. Also, at a 95 percent operating ratio, an accident that costs $10,000 will require that the fleet haul $200,000 in freight business to break even.

“Above all, don’t lose sight of the human factor and the fact that the driver is the carrier’s real product, because he provides the service we are selling,” concludes McFann. “So why do we treat our drivers like they have the plague, providing a driver entrance that’s separate from the one the other employees use, or make them communicate with company people through a little window? We need to give them the respect they deserve.”

John Baxter is senior associate editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail jbaxter@eTrucker.com.