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Reducing liability a good step in driver training, but keeping people safe should be key

The worst time to realize your fleet’s safety program doesn’t measure up is when you’re answering attorneys’ questions in court or at a deposition.

Yet, even the best companies can find themselves in that uncomfortable position. If they do, it’s a sure bet the fleet’s own safety training program is one of the first places plaintiffs’ attorneys will look for material to help their cause.

In the process of working with fleets and insurance providers on driver training, we’ve quickly found the issues that can prove to be the most damning for fleets in court often occur when fleets don’t give as much thought to their driver training program as they should. And those issues can lie in wait like unexploded mines.

One significant trigger is evidence of insufficient or negligent training in the fleets’ own records. Claims specialists at leading insurance providers say that during the deposition process or in court, the plaintiff’s attorneys will often ask for the fleets’ training records.

“Attorneys have a checklist of things they ought to be requesting,” Don Huston, senior claims specialist with Sentry Insurance, told me recently. “We’re seeing the records-request letters more often.” 

Another potential trigger: Lack of evidence the training programs were ever implemented. After all, however good it may be, its mere existence isn’t a good defense if there’s no record of implementation. Risk management experts tell me that without something to verify training took place, courts will likely assume it didn’t.

Implementation and documentation can be key to reducing a fleet’s legal liability, and that’s important. But the primary purpose of good safety programs should be to keep workers, customers and the motoring public safe from harm. Since they can lower the numbers of injury claims and the amounts of potential damage, safety programs may also help fleets save money by reducing or keeping their insurance rates steady.

Safety programs can also improve recruitment and retention. After all, employees are more likely to go to work for and stay with companies that create and maintain safe work environments. Reaping all those benefits requires fleets take a more proactive approach to ensure their programs are as strong as they should be.

A good safety program:

  • Needs to be real with a strong plan of implementation. Too often fleets assume that when drivers pass their CDL exams and are granted a commercial driver’s license, they’ve received all of their required training. It’s a wrong line of thinking, and it’s echoed by Daniel Grant, Sentry’s director of safety services for transportation, who told me: “Frankly, what we don’t see enough of is any basic process for even basic formal driver training. The assumption is, ‘I’ve got a driver that’s passed his exam, he’s got a CDL’ and that’s enough to get him on the road.” An effective program instills in drivers and employees alike a sense that safety is not only a significant part of the company’s culture, but also an ongoing process. The program must give drivers the tools and best practices for being safe on the road and at pickup and delivery points. It needs to provide regular feedback to employee and employer about effectiveness in terms of improved safety performance. While some fleet managers might think holding a driver meeting and showing their drivers a training video is good enough, juries can be convinced to look at the situation much differently.
  • Must have continuous implementation. Insurance companies tell me one of the most common deficiencies in training programs is a lack of ongoing driver engagement. Safety policies may get a mention during the orientation session (“onboarding,” in the current business terminology), but those meetings are also taken up by paperwork, such as forms drivers fill out to indicate where they want their paychecks deposited. 
  • Ought to continue for all drivers, regardless of seniority, for as long as they work for the company. 
  • Should remind and reinforce the lessons drivers learned in previous training sessions. We’ve found training programs are most effective when people hear things continuously resulting in the program’s steps becoming engrained into their thought processes. As just one example - when experienced drivers have received repeated courses on defensive driving, they’re more likely to apply that training in an emergency.
  • Should be well-documented. Shane Cutler, founder of Cutler TCMS (transportation compliance management services), which provides risk assessment, driver training and regulatory compliance to freight-hauling companies, is adamant about documentation, “Without the verified training in the files, you can only assume the company didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” he told me. Recordkeeping in the form of training booklets that drivers sign at the beginning or end of the training session, and are quickly filed away, won’t cut it.

Thorough, detail-rich record keeping should include details such as when the training took place and for how long. What kind of training did drivers receive and on what topics? Was there any measurement taken regarding the drivers’ understanding and retention of the material? If there were any subjects drivers needed to review or work on, what sort of follow-up was done?

When companies face liability claims, the ability to produce records demonstrating a serious, concerted effort in safety training can significantly reduce the amount of a potential settlement. The daily stresses and strains of running a business sometimes push the development and implementation of a good safety program to the background. But lack of attention can wind up making a weak or non-existent program as much a liability as the claims companies can face in court. But perhaps, more importantly, insufficient or non-existent training can become accidents waiting to happen.

 About the author: Mark Murrell is co-founder of CarriersEdge, a leading provider of online driver training for the trucking industry, and co-creator of Best Fleets to Drive For, an annual evaluation of the best workplaces in the North American trucking industry produced in partnership with Truckload Carriers Association. He can be reached at carriersedge.com.

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