Responding to the changing environment
As an advanced driver trainer and road safety specialist, I wanted to capture how COVID has impacted and dramatically changed the way we now have to work and engage with drivers. The speed of this change has been a shock to us all. However, it has been amazing to see how we have all adapted in such a short period.
In the years before Coronavirus, I had been a consultant trainer working in classrooms with prosecuted drivers who wished to avoid penalty points on their licence, through to working with companies to reduce their exposure to road risk. I loved the variety of freelancing. But a virus that spread quickly and indiscriminately across the globe changed all of that.
My classroom training went from socially distanced, with an absence of shared materials, books, pens name-cards and marker pens – tools of the professional trainer – stripped from the training room, to postponed until further notice, but at least 12 weeks within as many hours. My colleagues involved in practical driver training had to stop their activity with all theory and practical driving tests cancelled except for key workers, and precious little information forthcoming.
Having identified the likelihood of traditional training being cancelled, I was lucky enough to quickly secure a driver trainer role with a leading supermarket working with their online delivery drivers. Within two weeks of lockdown, I was delivering familiar training in a scary and unfamiliar world. A world with antiseptic sprays to clean the training vehicle, wipes for hands and surfaces, latex gloves, a facemask, and disposable seat covers – the measures put in place for everyone’s safety were immediate and far-reaching. But only made the experience feel more bizarre and alien.
Head Office issued guidelines that meant we could only spend 90 minutes in a vehicle on a one to one basis. Previously, driver training was usually delivered two to one and over a full day, which provided several challenges. Firstly, the training route had to be challenging, and cover a multitude of likely real-world scenarios – gyratory systems, fast roads, narrow roads, cul-de-sacs, and 20mph zones; everything that would challenge a delivery driver throughout their shift. This was a real challenge given that our drivers would be responsible for delivering up to 20 drops across one of the busiest cities in the world.
We have recruited new drivers from a diverse background of floristry, tradespeople, private hire to actors and camera crew. It has been a steep learning curve for many of them, having never done multi-drop, experience telematics, or vehicles of this size and type.
Empty lockdown roads provided many new challenges - risky driver behaviour of high speeds, amber gambling with traffic lights, to pedestrians and cyclists taking chances on seemingly empty roads.
We aim to revisit all of the new drivers over the next few weeks as the roads have become much busier. However, road user behaviour still means safety is at best compromised, in order to ensure that the new drivers are comfortable in their work, and safe behind the wheel.
My classroom work migrated to online training within a fortnight, albeit cut down from four-hour courses to two-and-a-half-hour sprints, with eight clients to one trainer, instead of two trainers working with 24 clients. The online platforms threw new challenges, and a whole new skill set of helping clients to logon to the session, through to asking direct questions and coaching drivers through the potentially painful process of change.
I also recognise how fortunate I am, given that the Driving Instructors working across Britain and beyond have had little information other than they were only able to work with key workers and with testing cancelled indefinitely. I am sure the fact that they were able to return to work on 4th July was both daunting and encouraging.
For me, the biggest hurdle was the prospect of being locked away in the house to deliver a secure meeting while my partner was trying to do the same. We were also trying to home school our five-year-old son (like herding cats as anyone who found themselves in a similar situation will know).
I do miss the face to face connection, and as I am passionate about training, I suppose the need to be around people, colleagues, and clients alike.
The biggest challenge for me was developing an online personality – easy to build rapport and empathy face to face. Still, I found it quite difficult when looking down the camera lens.
It is rarer that a group on an online platform will confront poor driver behaviour quite in the way they would when face to face. Equally, the trainer role often moves away from asking and coaching to telling, which, for my part, I hope, does not come across as preachy.
At the beginning of lockdown, the clients seemed pleased to have a distraction – I am not used to seeing happy people, normally they are upset and angry that they have been prosecuted for doing what to them felt normal and safe.
I guess for the client it meant that they could attend a course from familiar surroundings. In one case a little too familiar; a driver logged in to the course from behind the steering wheel – had a few to be fair – but this gentleman decided it would be ok to do so while actually on the motorway driving a lorry!
Technology has managed to help us adapt very quickly to our strange way of life, and potentially brings benefits as well as challenges.
Businesses can reduce their carbon footprint by allowing their drivers to attend remotely, reducing lost hours travelling and reducing fleet costs. Targeted online training can help challenge behaviour and help form part of a larger suite of driver training.
As a result of my work with a major supermarket, I have been exposed to what telematics and driver safety apps can bring to fleet management, and how it can readily identify poor driver behaviour, from harsh cornering, braking to coasting.
All bad habits that thankfully most of the time don’t have a negative outcome besides wear and tear on mechanical components, tyres and poor fuel consumption. But they could lead to a driver taking unnecessary risks and could end up costing the business far more.
Driver training has been limited to 90 minutes targeted sessions which have been challenging and exciting – what could I tell this driver, has been adapted to what does this driver need to know right now to minimise their exposure to risk.
Technology, especially in this new-normal, is the way forward in helping the trainer to do this. I was sceptical, but having seen how the data can be split down to show where the incident happened and when you can start to build a profile of what the driver is like when they are not physically watched.