Experience and Memory

Someone once said, “Perspective is everything.” Perhaps it was me. Perhaps not. I do not remember. One thing that is for certain is that memory is not everything. And that presents one big problem for public transportation services.

Just as my career in transportation has changed a lot, my perspective has changed along with it, as I moved from serving as a consultant to USDOT, to designing transit and paratransit systems, to operating a large paratransit system for 10 years, to designing buses, and more recently, to serving as an expert witness. One thing I used to believe was that the experienced driver is the safer driver. I no longer believe that to be the case.

Training and Meaning

In the simplest of terms, training has no meaning if the trainee does not understand it, does not retain it, and most importantly, does not apply it. After reading hundreds of depositions of drivers involved in every form and manner of accident, I have been astonished by how little of their initial training so many experienced drivers have not only forgotten, but have no memory of ever having learned in the first place. I am not speaking about esoteric concepts or scenarios that are rarely encountered. I am talking about crayon-level fundamentals: Inertial and centrifugal force. Mirror scanning. Alighting procedures. Stopping distance intervals. Reaction time. Bus measurements like length and width. Defensive driving principles. While I have not examined the relationship rigorously, my review of hundreds of depositions has convinced me that, with obviously plenty of exceptions, the longer a driver has been operating (beyond a certain point), the less he or she remembers about driving safety.

Even more striking is how early in their careers drivers seem to forget so many of the rudiments: Roughly after three or four years. While I have encountered a lot of law suits involving drivers with less than two years’ experience (keep in mind the turnover rate in this profession), I am continually surprised how many serious injury accidents occur with drivers possessing more than 15 years of experience.

Training and Illusion

While everyone acknowledges the value of training, views on the type, amount and level of training needed vary enormously. Most states require refresher training, but few mandate its content. Agencies and companies are typically required to provide eight hours of it a year, but are allowed to do with those hours whatever they please, within reason. Many agencies and companies use it to familiarize drivers about new vehicles and equipment – something they should do irrespective of any regulatory requirements. But strangest of all is the fact that the elements of original training are often rarely repeated.

Perhaps the belief is that the fundamentals are practiced so regularly that additional training would be redundant. That might be true if the fundamentals were practiced properly on a regular basis. Instead, what happens is that the proper fundamentals gradually erode, and the proper principles either disappear entirely or are replaced with a childlike substitute with only a superficial resemblance to the original training. For a salient example of this, watch how many buses make left turns – and how many or most of their drivers begin turning before their rear axles meets the extended curb line of the street being turning into. In other words, drivers are not making “box” turns, where the bus proceeds in a straight line until the rear axle reaches this extended curb line, and then turns sharply, dragging the rear tires in a diagonal path behind it. Instead, they are turning prematurely, as in a car — an approach that results in the rear of the bus cutting across the opposite side of the intersecting roadway, where vehicles on that corner are waiting to turn. On occasion, and particularly on narrow streets, the rear tires would roll up onto the sidewalk, where they could strike pedestrians.

Repetition and Virtuosity

As a former paratransit system director – at a time when I did not particularly consider myself a safety expert – I recognized that some types of training would be continuously executed correctly because it was performed regularly, and/or when it was not, the deviations were easy to observe. For example, we closely monitored operating speed and wheelchair loading and unloading (which generally took a pretty standard amount of time for a good driver) largely by our regular review of driver’s logs: If the dwell time was less than three minutes, we had a pretty good idea that the chair was not being properly secured, and follow-up road supervision often bore this out.

In contrast, there were a number of things that a driver would not commonly encounter. Most important of these were the unpredictable things fellow motorists and pedestrians would do, and which might cause accidents. For this reason (and because the California Highway Patrol taught the course for free), we required all our drivers, irrespective of their tenure, to take the full defensive driving course twice a year (in addition to all of them taking it as new drivers). Thus, in our tenth and last year of operations, we had many drivers who had taken a defensive driving course close to 20 times. Statistics may be deceiving, but they do not lie: In 10 years and tens of millions of miles of travel, we had only one serious accident – when a driver fell asleep at the wheel.

As a footnote, we were unreasonably strict about our progressive discipline, and made important exceptions to it: Drivers were terminated “on the spot” for a number of inexcusable transgressions, including speeding and failing to properly secure a wheelchair. With our regular review of drivers’ logs, and other monitoring measures (e.g., we watched the conduct of pre-trip inspections through binoculars from the dispatch room), few drivers dared to deviate from required procedures and practices. Still, we reinforced their proper execution of safety-related procedures by repetitive training that often emphasized things that were fundamental – things that many other company’s transportation managers might assume would automatically be done correctly all the time even when they were taught only once, sometimes 15 0r 20 years ago for many driver – often to drivers either never given the training materials or who have long since lost them.

Repetition and More Repetition

Not trying to sound like a drill sergeant, it is obvious every day that, despite the difficulty of the challenge, our armed forces our the World’s finest not only because of their technology or their bravery, but largely because of the quality and thoroughness of their training. Even fellow-armies who we unwittingly trained are performing well against us. Regardless, the importance of repetitive training should not be understated or under-acknowledged.

The four to six weeks’ training most of our transit and motorcoach drivers receive appears fine for the first few years of their service. But it is clearly not enough if and when many of these driver remain in service. I say this knowing that training costs money – not only for the pittance paid to the training provider, but because the bevy of drivers attending must also be paid. However, my gut feeling is that retraining drivers with a modified, complete, multi-week course every three to five years, and further, mandating some in-between study time to review their manuals, will cost considerably less than the damage awards stemming from lawsuits where the weakest link is the driver’s failure to remember basic things about his or her training that jurors find astonishing, and which almost automatically places the transportation system below the highest standards and duty of care required of a common carrier, which all our transit and motorcoach services are – and which raises the bar to the requirement for near-perfection in the world of litigation.

Finally, another thing I cannot prove, but have developed a sense of from a more recent review of deposition testimony, is that videotape learning is not as effective as that provided by live human beings. Not an expert in human factors, I cannot explain why this is so. And I could be wrong about it. But I have increasingly reviewed drivers testimony in which they do not remember a single element of content from videos they have recently watched, yet can name the video, most often from refresher courses.

The primary costs of sustaining a transportation operation are largely those which simply keep it on the road, and to a lesser degree, make it safe and efficient. But the costs of damage awards when we fail at the latter are growing and growing at a significant pace. Further, should one be curious about it, the worse our economy becomes, and the thinner the management pool and quality of drivers gets, the more my telephone rings off the hook. I am spending far too much time chatting with attorneys. I would much rather see transportation agencies and attorneys spending more time engaged in training.

Publications: National Bus Trader.