Is the driver shortage forcing you to accept unsafe drivers?

The increased congestion on today's highways makes defensive driving more important than ever. Consequently, raising driver skill levels in this area has become a new, and somewhat frustrating, challenge for many fleet managers.

Recently, I reviewed the two-year loss history of a major TL carrier located in the Northeast with its safety manager. Rear-end, lane-change and intersection/ turning incidents represented the most common source of insurance claims for this fleet. As a group, these incidents represented 48.4% of the accident claims filed by the carrier and 58.4% of claim dollars paid.

The safety manager explained that many of these incidents, which occurred on busy interstate highways, were caused by four-wheelers darting from lane to lane, or by sudden stops during congested traffic periods. "The highways are so crowded and passenger-car drivers seem to be getting more reckless. What am I supposed to do?" he asked.

In fact, research shows that highways are considerably more crowded than they used to be. And to make matters worse, a tight labor market means fleets often have to accept driver candidates with less experience than would be ideal.Lobbying Congress for more lane-mile construction is certainly i n order. But if we want more control over the situation in the short term, we need to raise the defensive driving bar. I'm not talking about teaching basic defensive driving techniques. Most drivers already know the six-second following rule, or the importance of scanning from side-to-side and far ahead to monitor changing highway conditions.

I'm talking about training drivers to be safety stars - those who actively engage in the driving task. Accident-prone drivers, on the other hand, are those who make comments about accidents, such as "I didn't see it" or "the car came out of nowhere." In other words, they've fallen into a driving mode that is somewhat rote.

The exasperation I'm hearing from fleet managers is really more about that lack of concentration and focus, not inadequate driving skills.

So what are we to do? One approach is to build an in-cab device to provide driver alerts at regular intervals. A more realistic strategy, however, is to create and reinforce stellar driving patterns that become second nature. The Smith System(r), for example, suggests displaying a simple phrase to help drivers build and maintain a space cushion around their trucks:

* All: Aim high in steering

* Good: Get the big picture

* Like: Leave yourself an out

* Milk: Make them see you

More recently, the Institute of Driver Behavior introduced a concept called pattern driving.

Institute owner Lenny Brunette uses a technique called "Lead With Your Eyes" that shows drivers how to stay super-focused while driving in heavy traffic or making lane changes and turns.

Here's the key to a successful defensive driving program: Motivate drivers to continually use the techniques they've learned.

Reevaluate your safe driving message. Are you simply re-teaching things your drivers already know? Or are you providing strategies to assure they'll use defensive driving techniques whenever they're behind the wheel?

Congestion on our highways will only get worse. So it's crucial to do everything you can to get the defensive driving message out.

Want to learn more? Contact the Institute of Driver Behavior, Superior, Wis., at 888-228-6802; or the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute, Arlington, Tex., at 800-777-7648.

[Jim York is a senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Insurance, based in Fredricksburg, Va.]