How to build a driver training program that minimizes risk, maximizes productivity

In March 2010, truck driver Monte Lyons attempted to turn left, crossing in front of Kevin Udy’s pickup truck. Udy was killed in the crash. In March 2013, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, jury ruled that improper driver training was partly to blame for the crash and awarded Udy’s family $58.5 million in damages.

Plaintiff attorney Bill Robins, of Heard Robins Cloud & Black LLP, said in a release that the evidence clearly established that the truck driver was not adequately trained and was likely driving fatigued. In addition, Robins claimed the jury heard evidence and agreed with the argument that the trucking company, Standard E&S, repeatedly violated federal and state regulations.

“Today a Santa Fe jury sent a clear message to the trucking industry, and to the oil and gas industry in particular, that those companies who choose not to follow safety rules and who place profits over human life, will be held accountable for the harm that they cause,” Robins said. “On behalf of the family, our hope is that the jury’s message will save lives in New Mexico and elsewhere, so that others will not have to suffer this tremendous loss.”

Accidents that cause fatalities — and even those that don’t — are tragic, but also a significant cost for trucking fleets. Every fleet wants to maximize productivity and minimize risk. Fewer regulatory violations and insurance claims lower the overall cost of operation. Accomplishing both goals requires consistent messaging from the fleet’s safety team, the driver training team and company management. And contrary to what many fleets believe, driver training does not end once a driver is hired.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has estimated the cost of a large truck accident with a single injury is $148,000, and that rises into the millions when a fatality is involved. FMCSA said there were 4,415 fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2018, and fatal crashes have increased 5.7% from 2016 through 2018. According to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), between 2014 and 2019, nearly 300 lawsuits or financial settlements against carriers exceeded $1 million.

Truck insurance premiums add as much as 11 cents per mile to a fleet’s cost, according to ATRI. And this doesn’t even begin to factor in the impact to a fleet’s operational costs from higher Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores due to driver violations such as hours-of-service, pre-trip and post-trip inspections, or drug and alcohol violations. CSA accident violations fall under the Crash Indicator BASIC, and a score that rises too high in this BASIC can trigger an FMCSA investigation or audit.

None of this can be eliminated, but the risks can be mitigated with proper and consistent driver training and through development and documentation of strong company policies that are communicated to employees and followed.

What training should I conduct?

“The FMCSA only identifies a few areas where drivers must be formally trained. These include entry-level driver training under 49 CFR Part 380, hazardous materials training (Parts 172 and 177), longer combination vehicles training (Part 380), and drug and alcohol testing which should include specific company policies,” said Sean Nebert, director of transport consulting services at J. J. Keller & Associates. “In addition to these specific training issues, Section 390.3(e) of the FMCSRs states that drivers and employees must be instructed in and comply with the regulations, but it does not include specifics as to delivery, documentation, or time,” Nebert said.

What goes into a training program?

Driver training programs need to incorporate an array of training curriculum and methods. It starts with new driver hire training, but an effective program should include ongoing training as well. Training can occur in the classroom, online, on the road or any combination of the three. The type of training that should be conducted will depend on what skills are being taught or refreshed. For existing drivers, simple video-based training with prompts may be sufficient for skill refreshers or to improve poor or unsafe driving behaviors. For new trainees, classroom work may be most appropriate, along with working side by side with a driver trainer.

Outside experts like J. J. Keller can assist fleets in determining the correct approach to training, as well as what topics a training program should include.

Before developing a training program, it’s important to assess the overall operation. What are the carrier’s needs? Which topics need to be covered, and how often? What materials are needed? 

Finally, enacting a safety program is just one part of the equation. Equally important is, how do you measure its success? “Developing metrics and creating accountability go a long way toward building a successful training program,” Nebert said.

Create a Corrective Action Training (CAT) program

CAT programs are an important part of any training regimen. A CAT addresses post-incident training and handles accidents, violations, complaints and noncompliance issues after the fact. CATs are typically targeted trainings and should identify candidates in need of further training. That identification could come through data collection, video monitoring, or FMCSA violations or warnings.

“CATs reinforce to drivers that the carrier is serious about safety and compliance issues and should be linked to the company’s disciplinary policies for reinforcement,” Nebert said.

Who should develop a training program?

The complexity of regulations often requires carriers to deploy specialized safety or compliance officers. Even then, though, the weight of ensuring adherence to federal regulations and company policies can be overwhelming. Outside compliance and regulatory specialists can provide specialized training, topic-specific documentation, and in-house experts and trainers.

Carriers should consider whether a compliance expert provides the necessary breadth of offerings, high-quality trainers from a respected organization, the appropriate experience level, and whether training is provided in a time and manner that works for all involved.

Not every accident or violation can be avoided, but a failure to have in place a strong, consistent driver training program can add to legal woes, like Standard E&S learned the hard way.