Three little things

From the October 2021 print edition

An alarming headline caught my eye recently. Apparently, traffic volumes on American roads decreased in 2020 but fatalities increased.

In fact, the increase was a 24 per cent spike for a total of 42,060 fatalities, the highest number in 13 years. The statistics themselves are cause for alarm, but what caught my attention was the reason attri­buted to this tragic increase. That reason was that angst over the COVID-19 pandemic had caused drivers to be aggressive and take greater risks on the road. In comparison, Canada experiences approximately 2,800 traffic fatalities annually. Better, but still unacceptable.

The role of the driver in collisions is paramount. The driver’s preparation, mindset, level of fatigue, experience and skill combine to determine how that individual will respond in any given situation. In fact, The Traffic Injury Research Foundation says that more than 90 per cent of road crashes are the result of human error or condition.

What three things separate good drivers from high-risk drivers? What three things do you want all your fleet drivers to do? What three things can you do to ensure good drivers get better and bad drivers find a more suitable career? The answers to these questions provide a framework for identifying risky driver behaviours and enforcing safe driving.

Three things drivers should stop
I informally asked a dozen of my fleet manager colleagues: “What do you want your drivers to stop doing immediately?” The answers were very consistent:

  • stop distracted driving;
  • stop breaking rules; and
  • stop crashing.

Distractions include far more than cell phones and distracted driving can involve reading a map or speaking with passengers. According to data from Transport Canada’s National Collision Database, distracted driving contributed to an estimated 21 per cent of fatal collisions and 27 per cent of serious injury collisions in 2016. It is estimated that distraction is a factor in 80 per cent of collisions.

Good drivers follow the rules of the road because they understand they are in place for the protection of everyone. One of those rules is to obey posted speed limits, yet speeding is the cause of 27 per cent of all traffic fatalities on Canadian roads. And although many drivers do not feel that operating a vehicle 10km over the posted limit to be dangerous, statistics say otherwise.

Crashes have causes, they do not happen on their own. The cause almost always involves driver behaviour, whether it’s something the driver did, or something they failed to do.

Three things drivers should start (or keep) doing
While there are three things that drivers need to stop doing, fleets can also benefit if drivers start,
or keep doing three other things:

  • Start eco-driving;
  • start defensive driving; and
  • start setting up for success.

Eco-driving has evolved from being a nice thought to essential in managing fuel spend. At $1.40 a litre, fleets can really benefit from the 10-to-15 per cent savings that are achievable when drivers eliminate idling, reduce speed and plan their routes carefully.

There is a reason that insurance companies offer 4-to-10 per cent rebates for drivers who have taken a defensive driving course. Defensive driving is a mindset shift that encourages drivers to follow all rules of the road and be proactive in identifying and responding to threats.

Drivers should set themselves up for success by having the proper training on the equipment they are operating, being well rested and planning the route they will take. Small things contribute to success – adjust all controls (radio, GPS, seats and mirrors) before starting a trip.

Three things management can do
Knowing that the driver really is the key in improving fleet operations, management needs to:

  • Emphasize education;
  • Enforce policies; and
  • engage and encourage.

New hires should receive onboarding training that includes a defensive driving course. Existing drivers should receive regular (such as annual) driver training to encourage safe driving. At-risk drivers should receive remedial training to help them improve deficient skills and follow-up assessments to gauge improvement.

In all cases, organizations must ensure that the goals of the training are understood so drivers will buy in to the potential benefits.

Enforcement must be prefaced with the creation and communication of robust policies that define acceptable driving practices as well as standard driving performance expectations. The policy should explain the consequences of infractions and be applied strictly and fairly across the board. The failure to enforce policy just one time can cause the entire safety program to fail. The creation of well-written fleet safety policies is challenging in many organizations, as it often slips in importance to other priorities. Organizations still need to make time for this, as policies can change the effectiveness of fleet support to the organization.

All stakeholders, from senior leaders to immediate supervisors, must contribute to managing driver behaviour. To ensure success, senior leadership must demonstrate good driving behaviours themselves and avoid distractions, speeding and crashes. Management should be involved in rewarding good driving behaviour by recognizing drivers who are crash-free or achieve fuel savings through eco-driving. Management should also be involved in sanctioning bad drivers, so they are seen as fully supporting the policies of the organization.

The title of the article may be misleading, as the “three little things” in each of the sections are actually three fairly significant things that must be identified, addressed and/or supported to ensure healthy fleet operations. There is no fixed recipe for success, but education, enforcement and engagement from management can combine to stop unwanted driver behaviours and encourage good ones.

Kate Vigneau, CAFM, is director of fleet MCG Consulting Solutions