GUELPH, Ont. - I'm on my way to Markel's Training Centre in Guelph for a one-day defensive driving course when I hear reports of an overturned tractor-trailer blocking the collector lanes of the 401 n...
REAL-WORLD TESTING: After the classroom portion of the course, we took to the streets in this minivan to put our skills to the test.
GUELPH, Ont. – I’m on my way to Markel’s Training Centre in Guelph for a one-day defensive driving course when I hear reports of an overturned tractor-trailer blocking the collector lanes of the 401 near Keele. As I change directions and head north towards the 407ETR, the news report serves as a grim reminder of the importance of ongoing driver training and the dangers of complacency among even the most seasoned drivers.
Statistics show about 85% of accidents are caused by driver error. While professional drivers are by and large the safest drivers on the road, nobody is immune to the complacency that tends to set in after years on the road. Instructor Rob Spencer explained that in driver evaluations, Markel finds 70-90% of all drivers demonstrate a lack of defensive driving skills – and these are mostly experienced drivers.
I consider myself to be an extremely defensive driver. I follow all the rules of the road: Leave myself an ‘out’ at all times; don’t follow too closely; keep my headlights on and my windshield clear; am constantly aware of the vehicles around me, etc. I’ve never been in an accident and so, admittedly, I initially questioned how much I could learn from Markel’s FACTS (Focus Awareness Communication Time Speed) one-day defensive driving course.
There are a few reasons you may find yourself attending a Markel FACTS course. Perhaps you’ve been identified as a “high-risk” driver and are required to take the course to maintain your employment and insurability. Or maybe you have an eye on a safety management position and realize the certificate would look pretty good on your wall. Or perhaps you (or more likely, your carrier) just recognize the value of continuous learning and want to take the course as a refresher.
Whatever the reason for attending, there are some clear benefits to enrolling in a defensive driving course such as FACTS.
When driving along at 110 km/h, you are travelling 100 feet per second, Spencer explained.
Defensive drivers should be looking as far ahead as possible to identify potential risks well up the road.
He said drivers should allow their eyes to scan back towards the front of their own vehicle, looking for hazards along the way.
“We want to look 20 seconds ahead of the vehicle,” Spencer said. “That’s about as far as the eye can see.”
In the city, the rules vary somewhat, with Spencer advising drivers to look about two to three city blocks ahead.
Drivers should constantly be identifying “real” (imminent) and “potential” (possible) risks, he said. When city driving, defensive drivers should have a “decision point” identified at each intersection – commonly known as the “point of no return” after which it is no longer possible to safely stop the vehicle.
Whether on the highway or in the city, Spencer reminded drivers to always maintain a safe following distance.
Drivers must constantly be aware of their surroundings and on the lookout for potential hazards before it’s too late to avoid them.
Spencer said drivers should never focus on any one object for more than two seconds. Instead, they should constantly be shifting their eyes between the horizon, the sides of the road, the mirrors and the vehicles immediately in front of the truck. Of course, it’s also important to keep an eye on important gauges on the dash.
Something many drivers learn in driving school and then soon forget when out on the road, is to always stop far enough back of the vehicle in front of you that you can see their rear tires as well as a piece of pavement. This allows you to pull out and pass that vehicle should it become disabled, Spencer pointed out.
The key to successfully communicating with other drivers is to “be predictable,” Spencer emphasized. That means no sudden starts and stops, but rather maintaining a smooth flow while driving.
He urged drivers to make eye contact with other motorists at intersections and to use a friendly tap of the horn to ensure they see you when they’re looking the opposite direction.
“If we communicate with people, they can communicate with us,” he added.
“Give yourself plenty of time to get from Point A to Point B,” he suggested.
Spencer also provided some perspective on truck stopping distances. Perception time (three-quarters of a second), reaction time (three-quarters of a second), brake lag (one-quarter to half a second) and stopping time combine to increase the stopping distance for heavy-duty trucks (see image on this page).
With all that in mind, it can take more than 600 feet (or nine tractor-trailer lengths) to stop an 80,000-lb vehicle travelling at 100 km/h.
That’s not including other factors such as road conditions, tire and brake conditions, etc.
Spencer provided a simple formula for establishing following distance: One second for every 10 feet of vehicle length + one additional second if travelling above 65 km/h. That means a tractor-trailer measuring 72-feet in length should leave at least eight seconds between itself and the vehicle in front.
Being a defensive driver means “exercising self-discipline” when it comes to vehicle speed, pointed out Spencer. He warned against driving based on feel, and suggested keeping an eye on the speedometer.
Drivers must be aware of speed limits, school zones, ramp speeds, etc. and adjust their speed based on driving conditions. When it comes to on- and off-ramps, Spencer pointed out that posted limits are intended for passenger vehicles, and trucks should shave at least an extra 10 km/h off them.
“Don’t over-drive your eyes,” he warned. “The faster we go, the less we can concentrate on.”
Hitting the road
Following the classroom portion of the course, participants hopped into one of Markel’s vans to put our skills to the test.
Spencer flipped the rearview mirror towards the ceiling and asked us to drive using only the side mirrors. (It’s assumed anyone taking the FACTS course already knows how to drive a truck, so the company doesn’t deem it necessary to carry out the practical component in a big rig).
Driving through Guelph, we were encouraged to do a “driver commentary,” discussing aloud exactly what we were seeing and doing at all times.
It took some getting used to, but it was a worthwhile exercise which increased my awareness of what was going on around me.
Despite my initial “They can’t teach me anything I don’t already know about driving” mentality, I left the FACTS course having gained a great deal of knowledge about defensive driving.
Most importantly, bad habits that have crept into my driving style over time were acknowledged and addressed. The course served as an excellent refresher and was well worth the time.
Carriers are well aware of the increasing costs of driver turnover and are coming to realize drivers aren’t a disposable commodity. Putting high-risk drivers through the FACTS (or other reputable defensive driving) course can prove to be a better investment than simply dismissing them.
Some of the members of my class were there because of past incidents, yet the tone was not one of punishment or condescension. In fact, everyone who took part seemed enthusiastic about the day’s activities and left there with a fresh perspective on defensive driving – myself included.