How to identify, and improve, the high-risk driver

They exist within virtually any fleet, but finding them is difficult. And few, if any, identify themselves as being one. The high-risk driver is a threat to the fleet they represent and in most cases, they started as good drivers who developed bad habits over time.

Technology is making it easier for fleets to identify the drivers and habits that bring risk to their organizations. But the follow-up coaching is the most important element, and should be the cornerstone of any fleet’s safety management program, according to Scott Creighton, director of risk services for transportation and logistics with Northbridge Insurance.

“There are two different types,” Creighton says of the drivers fleets should look to identify. “There’s the high-risk driver and then there’s the adverse driver. The high-risk driver is trainable and you can work with them. The adverse ones are those who’ll say, ‘Yeah, I hit that parked car but it shouldn’t have been parked there. It was a no parking zone.’ High-risk drivers don’t want to be high-risk drivers, they want to go out and do the best they can do and are open for coaching and improvement.”

Kevin Wartman in cab
Kevin Wartman, director of risk management at Polaris Transportation, combines low- and high-tech driver behavior monitoring strategies (Photo: Supplied)

Few fleets would knowingly hire a high-risk driver in the first place. Creighton says they are typically good drivers who’ve become complacent over time and have developed bad habits. Kevin Wartman, director of risk management at Polaris Transportation, says there are both low- and high-tech ways to identify the drivers who present the greatest risk to a fleet’s safety performance.

On the low-tech side are manual reviews of Canadian and U.S. safety profiles. “We monitor those daily and monthly,” Wartman says. “Anything a driver does on the road will show up on those reports. We look for trends. Is it a driver issue, or an equipment issue? We follow those very closely as a snapshot of what we and our drivers are doing.”

But safety profiles have limitations. They don’t reveal bad driving habits that have crept in, but didn’t result in a crash, a citation or a failed roadside inspection. That’s where in-cab video has come in for Polaris.

“Our biggest asset is forward-facing dashcams,” Wartman says of the PeopleNet system it uses to monitor driver performance. “We have individuals who monitor that daily.”

The camera picks up incidents and habits that, if ignored, could eventually result in a crash.

“Our highway guys drive at nighttime. You get nice reflections off the windshield if someone picks up a cell phone,” Wartman says.

Sutco Transportation Specialists has also incorporated in-cab video into its safety performance tracking program. It relies on the Isaac Instruments platform including an in-cab camera and Speed Gauge, which compares the truck’s actual speed to the legal speed limit where it’s traveling.

“Prior to the implementation of this technology, we relied on old school methods, which consisted of gathering and reviewing a conglomerate of data including manual log book audits, incidents and damages to equipment, violations and inspection reports and following up on call-in complaints from the public that often could not be verified,” says Sutco safety manager Brandon Cox. “This was a very time consuming, reactionary approach, that was far less effective when trying to identify the high-risk driver and high-risk driving behaviors.”

Other infractions video can identify include following too closely, hard braking, fast cornering, and distraction.

When these behaviors are flagged at Polaris, Wartman says the offending driver is automatically coached and required to take a defensive driving course, and depending on the infraction, maybe even a fatigue management course.

Even small fleets are seeing the benefits of using technology to identify high-risk drivers. CFF Stainless Steel, a Hamilton, Ont.-based stainless steel distributor has only 15 trucks. But Ken Nellist, logistics coordinator with the fleet, says even so, “it’s very difficult to keep an eye on everything when there’s no feedback from the truck and driver. If a driver comes in with a speeding ticket in their hand, that’s pretty self-explanatory.”

Nellist deployed Isaac Instruments to gain better insights to how company equipment was being operated.

Sutco driver in cab receiving instructions
Sutco Transportation driver Rajandeep Singh sits in the truck taking instruction from a trainer. (Photo: Supplied)

“I’ve been able to pick out guys who drive excessively fast on a regular basis, and mitigate that. Hard braking. Hard turning. Every time a video comes up, I review those videos,” he says. The technology has given him greater peace of mind, because he says “as a small fleet, all it takes is one bad incident, one bad inspection and your CVOR takes a shit-kicking.”

He is also using video footage as a way to recognize drivers whose skilled driving has averted collisions that would’ve been the fault of other motorists.

Identifying high-risk drivers and driving habits is one thing. Fixing them is quite another.

Jane Jazrawy, CEO of online training firm CarriersEdge gets a unique insight into the practices of well-run fleets as a judge of the Truckload Carriers Association’s Best Fleets to Drive For program. The use of technology to identify dangerous behaviors is ubiquitous among the nominated fleets, she says, but many still struggle to execute the follow-up coaching needed to resolve those specific issues.

“Everyone is putting cameras in trucks. Everyone is using technology to get warnings about driver activities,” she says. “But the safety training is the same as it’s always been. It isn’t necessarily based on the behaviors they’re seeing from the drivers.”

Northbridge’s Creighton agrees technology is only helpful if it’s linked to the follow-up coaching fleets give their drivers. “At the end of the day, it’s how they use what they have,” he says, adding even rudimentary approaches like examining ECM data can be effective if the follow-up coaching is properly executed.

“I think in the coming years people will start realizing they have to actually integrate that particular technology with how they’re educating drivers,” Jazrawy adds, noting fleets are just now learning how to connect the dots between the data generated by these emerging technologies and how they manage remedial training.

No in-cab technology is meant to eliminate the in-person coaching that is required to eliminate bad driving habits.

“If a company wants to be successful in managing driver safety performance with technology, then human connection is imperative when it comes to coaching a driver,” says Cox. “Impersonal messages typically result in further negative perceptions of the technology, the risk of alienating the driver and creating additional tension.”

These potentially confrontational discussions between drivers and their safety managers are more easily handled when the fleet safety representative has a good relationship with their drivers. A driving background helps, too.

“They know where I come from. I’m not someone just sitting behind the desk who doesn’t know the first thing about trucking,” says Nellist, himself a former professional driver.

At Polaris, both Wartman and his driver-trainer drove in the past. “We have on-road experience. Our drivers respect that they’re talking to people who’ve been in the seat.”

Because most bad habits are developed over time, and can easily be proven using in-cab video, Wartman says these difficult conversations tend not to be confrontational. He also strongly believes the vast majority of high-risk drivers can be improved with proper remedial training.

“It is important to recognize potential contributing factors to these habits. Is the driver experiencing operational pressure, or is there something going on personally that is having a negative impact on their work behaviors.”

Kristi White, Sutco Transportation Specialists

“I believe if the individual is open minded and they want to be better, they can be rehabilitated,” he says. “I’ve proven it personally.”

He’s referring to a driver who was involved in two crashes and a close call within a short time. Wartman went on a six-hour ride-along with the driver and identified the habit that led to the incidences. “I could see that the driver would just become complacent and start to follow too closely,” he recalls.

The face-to-face discussion is also the only way managers can determine if there’s an underlying issue in a driver’s life that’s contributing to recently acquired habits.

“It is important to recognize potential contributing factors to these habits,” says Kristi White, safety coordinator with Sutco. “Is the driver experiencing operational pressure, or is there something going on personally that is having a negative impact on their work behaviors?”

Failure to coach a driver who’s been identified as high risk and has developed dangerous driving habits is a big no-no, warns Northbridge’s Creighton. “Identifying them and doing nothing has got to be the worst thing anybody can do,” he stresses. He also emphasizes the need for consistency when intervening with drivers.

“You have to be consistent across the board, from your newest driver to your most senior driver. If not, you lose the confidence of drivers,” Creighton says.

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.


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