Driver training: Covid and beyond

Date: Tuesday, March 23, 2021   |   Author: Guy Bird

Switched-on LCV operators have always invested in driver training, but Covid restrictions have brought big changes in both what training is deliverable and what needs to be prioritised.

During the last three lockdowns it has been widely reported that UK traffic reduced but speeding increased. This is perhaps no surprise, given a surge in online shopping and the pressure on van drivers to deliver goods faster and more often, as the general public were ordered to travel less to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Other businesses that couldn’t operate in the same way as they did before the pandemic – or at all –  saw revenue plummet while, at the same time, face-to-face, in-cab LCV driver training was made impossible for large parts of the past year. All of which suggests that driver training has never been more important to invest in, but at the same time possibly more difficult than ever to carry out. 

What Van? canvassed opinion from some of the UK’s leading lights in the industry to see how they’ve adapted. IAM RoadSmart’s CEO, Tony Greenidge, kicks things off with a level-headed response: “Higher incidences of speeding are clearly a cause for concern but, given the reduction in overall traffic, any comparisons with ‘normal’ levels in terms of the incident risk are very difficult to interpret,” he begins. “It’s too early to say whether the recent news headlines are representative of an ongoing trend. What’s more of a concern in the longer term is the potential for ‘skills fade’ and reduction in confidence experienced by drivers who have spent long periods away from the roads during lockdown, combined with the potential results of increased numbers of inexperienced van drivers on the roads once traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, especially if their training has been neglected.”

In summary, experienced but possibly furloughed van drivers could be ring-rusty, while inexperienced drivers new to the industry might be thrust into the fray without adequate training. And it gets worse. “Clearly businesses have had to make substantial changes to their approach to driver training due to the need for social distancing,” Greenidge continues. “The majority have put all forms of in-cab training on hold, while those who have had no choice but to continue have had to implement stringent cleaning procedures. Some have adopted ingenious solutions for dividing the cab to separate the driver from the passengers but, by and large, in-cab training courses have had to be postponed. For van drivers in particular, this is a significant drawback, as many crucial elements of van training are impossible to cover without in-cab experience. Holders of standard car licences are permitted to drive vans up to 3.5t and it is of great concern to us that lockdown may have resulted in many such drivers being handed the keys without adequate training.”

Covid-related restrictions are, at the time of writing, just starting to ease again in the UK but there’s still a long way until 21 June when they may or may not fully lift and a ‘new normal’ replaces them. Since 23 March 2020, the UK’s driver training industry has had to think on its feet to find solutions.

One obvious answer is e-learning, which many companies have had in place since before the pandemic as part of their suite of driver training options. And Greenidge says, despite the points it raises about face-to-face training, it’s not only a good solution but an affordable one too. “Most businesses can implement a robust driver training programme at minimal cost and with very little demand for admin,” he said. “For example, a subscription to Choices, our online risk management portal that offers online risk assessment, e-learning and licence checking, can be offered for as little as £12 per year per driver. It also makes it easy for employers to identify and target just those drivers
who would benefit most from an on-road intervention.”

Another established player in the market, DriveTech, also offers a digital product called Driver’s Mate, which comprises hundreds of bite-size videos that can be tailored to individual businesses and viewed by drivers quickly before getting behind the wheel to reinforce safety practices. “After spending time evaluating training programmes with our customers, it became clear that there was a role for us to support businesses in communicating safety practices on a more ongoing ‘little and often’ basis,” says Leo Taylor, head of product solutions at DriveTech. “We know that reinforcing and reminding about policies and procedures works, but this needs to be in an engaging and manageable
way for businesses and drivers. This led us to create Driver’s Mate, which is an informal, effective way of keeping fleets up to date with their training in just 90 seconds.”  

A relative newcomer to the field, Praiso, extols the virtues of a completely digital approach. Through the use of desktop computers and mobile devices with real-time telematics and artificial intelligence, it can monitor driver behaviour and engagement and personalise training. “Praiso’s name is derived from an anagram of high praise, AI and software, and we want drivers to feel the importance of safe driving,” explains commercial director Jason Fitzgerald. “Rather than beating them into submission, we want them to concur and collaborate. Our driver engagement through new gamification functionality truly enhances the driver experience of using Praiso. Happy and well-performing drivers are rewarded by our customers, who are also rewarded by a reduction in insurance claims and premium, speeding tickets, fuel usage and vehicle maintenance.”

This practical and cost-saving sentiment is echoed by Lightfoot’s founder and CEO, Mark Roberts, who points to more than two billion miles of data showing that his customers have seen fuel use and CO2 emissions drop by up to 15%, accidents by up to 40% and wear and tear by up to 45%, albeit using a slightly different ‘self-managing’ approach. Through Lightfoot’s in-cab, dashboard-mounted product, which plugs into the engine and feeds back live information to the driver, they are encouraged to keep within the ‘sweet spot’ of their engine. Described as a ‘Fitbit for vans and cars’ and allied to rewards for drivers that ‘play ball’, Roberts says Lightfoot’s approach is the antidote to what he sees as an outmoded, top-down ‘do as I say’ type of driver training. 

“Traditionally, van fleets have used black box tracking devices to monitor drivers and review their performance retrospectively,” he reasons. “That’s a big brother approach, a big stick to beat drivers with after the event. Drivers hate it. It’s why we’ve built a business centred on engaging positively with drivers, rewarding and incentivising them to be smoother, safer and more efficient. This has been achieved through our work with the Institute of Advanced Motorists and leading driver behaviour experts at Bath University.”

This ‘carrot’ rather than ‘stick’ approach would appear to feature decent and rather large carrots too, as Roberts continues: “With our benefits and rewards platform, accessed via an app, we are able to achieve industry-leading levels of driver engagement. This is in no small part down to the Drivers’ Lottery, where each week drivers achieving ‘Elite Driver’ status have a one in 10 chance of winning up to £100 paid to them directly via PayPal. In 2020 alone, the Drivers’  Lottery paid out cash prizes to over 16,000 fleet drivers, giving away in excess of £50,000. And in 2021 it plans to triple pay-outs.”  

As for future trends, while IAM’s Greenidge is a firm believer in one-to-one training as crucial (and returning post-pandemic), he is also accepting of the benefits of digital learning: “The trend towards increasing numbers of grey fleet vehicles and the growth of the last-mile delivery sector will no doubt lead to an increase in the adoption of the ‘hybrid’ approach that we have been encouraging for the last few years, in which an integrated online risk management system is used to build a detailed risk profile for each driver and to assign online or on-road training courses as appropriate.”

EV-specific training is also cited as an important add-on skill that will become increasingly necessary as fleets switch to emission-free powertrains, with DriveTech going so far as to launch a free downloadable white paper on the subject entitled ‘Embracing an electric future: the right support for fleets’, covering charging and cost and maintenance differences. Praiso’s Jason Fitzgerald is even getting ready to train drivers in vehicles that may spend most of the journey driving themselves.

“Autonomous vehicle manufacturers and the ongoing electrification replacing ICE vehicles means we will be presented with many new driving behaviours to monitor and coach,” Fitzgerald says. “Adopting a cost-effective digital system to assist now will provide capacity for businesses of any size to better manage risk, driver safety and road safety. The UK has proudly been a trendsetter in the past when it comes to technology and compliance, and I see no reason why we won’t grasp the nettle when it comes to digital driver training.”

Covid-19 may have halted some things then, but it hasn’t stopped the creativity of the UK driver training industry, hats off for that.


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