Training the Trainers

As transportation community members well know, driving is, by itself, becoming increasingly complex while the complexity of management functions is exploding. It is doubtful that safety and liability concerns can keep pace without expanding the knowledge, experience and perspective of management. Beyond this, it is becoming increasingly important for management to also develop the skills to articulate its knowledge, experience and perspective – particularly in the courtroom. Providing more and better training to management is not only an appropriate response, but an inevitable one.

Responsibility for drivers’ failures often lies in the policy-making, planning, system design and management hierarchy above them, where driver errors and omissions are sometimes set in motion. The safety director lies atop this pyramid, shaping the operating environment and defining its duty cycles. Yet most formalized training is directly only at drivers. Further, there are no formal requirements for safety directors, and no formal certification for what informal standards may exist.

Recognizing these problems, the ABA’s Bus Industry Safety Council (BISC) began working with the North American Transportation Management Institute (NATMI) on a solution, devoting nearly two years to the development of a two-day workshop directed at motorcoach safety directors. The first official workshop was conducted this past June 19th and 20th. Two career motorcoach safety experts were selected as instructors: Walter D. Weiss, a private safety consultant, and Alessandro “Alex” Guariento, Greyhound’s Director of Safety and current BISC Chairperson.

More Pros than Cons

Any journalistic coverage of a new product or service should at least try to include some reasonable criticisms. Yet it was not easy to find serious shortcomings for this effort, much less as a maiden voyage. My primary criticism actually concerns the pre-course reading materials: While many documents were relevant and informative (a few were brilliant), others were puffy, egg-headed and of little or no practical value. Further, few seemed necessary as pre-reading material.

Otherwise, those shortcomings the course had seemed to simply reflect the ambitious attempt to cover a topic as voluminous and daunting as safety in two days. In particular, I thought the coverage of fatigue was thin. And while I thought the coverage of accident analysis was informative, the dialog among attendees only reinforced my opinion about the esoteric nature of skill, and the fact that dealing with it meaningfully was not possible within the two hours or so devoted to it in the workshop.

One unusual issue treated thoroughly and continually was the need to sell the importance of safety to a company’s decision-maker(s). This theme acknowledged that efforts to expand the safety envelope would not always be appreciated, much less welcomed, by owners and senior executives for whom safety’s connections to the bottom line are not so obvious. For this reason, approaches to presenting its importance which lay apart from purely theoretical or statistical justifications were explored to a considerable degree.

One attendee remarked that the course’s greatest value was its organization of ideas. Commensurate with this, I felt that the treatment of analysis and interpretation of trends was exceptional and, in particular, provided a perspective to safety directors and other management personnel of small operations which the limited sample size of their own data did not permit.

While the course was designed for Safety Directors, I also felt that the largely interdisciplinary composition of the attendees enriched its presentation. As I have argued in previous NBT articles, most accidents are not the result of things one does not know; they are the consequence of things one does not see. The scope of topics covered, the interdisciplinary nature of the audience, the ample time afforded for their comments, and the encouragement they were given for making them expanded the perspectives from which the subject matter covered could be viewed.

Particularly for safety directors with expertise only in specific areas, an exposure to the full range of concerns was of great value, even if time permitted only a taste of many of them. As the elements of operations increase in both number and complexity, the task of assembling them so that they fit tightly together yet do not collide becomes increasingly challenging. To its credit, the NATMI course not only identified many of the key pieces but, for a two-day course, did a credible job of describing how they interrelate.

Finally, apart from their obvious command of the subject matter, the genuine passion for the industry shared by the workshop’s instructors enhanced and reinforced the messages delivered, made the course enjoyable, and made it seem all the more important.

Beyond the Starting Point

With access to a trade magazine column, I have the luxury of publicly suggesting possible improvements to consider in conducting future courses. Here are a few:

  • Particularly as the course expands to encompass more instructors, more territory and more sessions, its optimum format might include some video-taped segments delivered by experts in narrow subject areas, transforming the live instructors largely into facilitators and coordinators. Such an approach would also help maintain the small size of the audience – a size which permitted the course to operate largely as a dialog rather than a lecture.
  • Notwithstanding some documents that could be excluded, the reading material attached to the course could be expanded considerably, while serving more effectively as a mini-library for attendees – providing yet another carrot to justify attendance and its costs.
  • Along with an expanded library, I would also like to see a bibliography. Contents could be updated periodically and made available to past attendees – effectively providing “refresher” training on a regular basis, and keeping the certification current.

Others who have already taken the course are encouraged to submit their comments about it to NATMI. Facilitating this, NATMI’s website (www.NATMI.org) is being reconfigured and, in September, will include user-friendly feedback and survey capabilities.

Costs and Countercosts

I felt the course was of particular value to younger safety directors, and even moreso to those individuals in smaller companies responsible for a broad range of overlapping operating functions. For such individuals, unfortunately, the cost of taking the course – roughly a thousand bucks – was steep, particularly when one folded in the cost of travel, lodging and meals, much less the value of two days’ time for someone whose presence is most essential to a smaller company’s safety and liability. A handful of things could lower these costs (partly by expanding the audience) exponentially:

  • Sub-regional presentations. At noted, these would be facilitated by alternating live instruction with videotaped segments. Further, the tapes could double as important elements in an attendees or his/her company’s library – a library such operators could not reasonably afford without such an approach. Like the workshop itself, obtaining this library might also serve as an inducement to membership in umbrella groups.
  • Premium Reduction. If the course is as valuable as it appears, and certainly as valuable as it could become, then taking it should pay off both in improved safety and reduced exposure. So the insurance industry might consider offsetting the course’s costs by corresponding reductions in premiums.
  • Magnets and Coupling. Holding the course in the same place as, and immediately before, the BISC conference helped reduce its costs for those also attending that meeting, as it naturally would if held in conjunction with the ABA, UMA, BUSCON, APTA, CTAA or other national conferences. Similarly, sub-regional workshops could be scheduled to coincide with state conferences.
  • Internet or Tele-Conferencing. While these formats have their obvious limitations, they have become an increasingly common tools in mainstream educational institutions, and provide a degree of access beyond that which can be accommodated by live presentations.
  • Variations. As much as the interdisciplinary attendance enriched the course, its focus on safety directors is likely to deter many non-safety directors from taking it, as will the requirements for certification. If economies of scale can be developed, and as acceptance of the workshop’s value grows, it might do well to evolve into some variations – including one for small company management (with limited sample sizes of data to analyze), and perhaps a variation for non-management personnel (including attorneys charged with defending the industry’s operators). Consideration might also be given to pairing a common initial day of instruction with second-day spin-offs aimed at different audiences (thereby confining the number of additional instructors needed to only a single day’s presence).

In its initial presentation, of course, the workshop simply preached to the choir. Known and offered only to BISC members, it was attended by only a handful of individuals who already place considerable emphasis on the subject matter. For the course to fulfill its potential, this must change. While it will never reach the laggards, by definition, the course (or other similar efforts) must penetrate more deeply into the ranks.

Swallowing One’s Tail

One interesting enigma about the course lies in the nature of its certification: To qualify, one need have been a full-time safety director for five years (only four with a college degree). Thus, to the degree that certification ever became of paramount importance, operators would collectively be doomed to years of non-certified safety directors positioned at their helms. Particularly with the job turnover rate endemic to a society with obscene disparities in personal income, the waiting period for obtaining certification would necessarily limit the number of certified directors to a relatively small percentage of the total – even if every single safety director eligible for certification sought and received it.

Most hiring and screening efforts separate, rather than integrate, education from experience. So I have no problem envisioning a certified safety director who simply has limited job experience. Particularly in a large system, a new safety director may have spent decades in other important positions within the operation, including the classically-desirable progression from driver to dispatcher to training instructor to scheduler to manager. While formal certification may not be critical to my particular work (since I do not serve as a safety director), I nevertheless consider it ironic that my ten years as the General Manager of my own 70-vehicle system not only do not qualify me for certification, but would appear to not count toward a single day of the experience requisite to it.

While certification must have meaning as an industry standard, these enigmas are likely to constrain the number of individuals who seek certification and, to a considerable degree, will effectively deprive the industry of the benefits for which the course was designed, developed and intended.

Safety and Liability

Lazy plaintiffs’ attorneys focus primarily on driver error, and may examine driver training documents almost surgically. But the better plaintiff’s attorneys focus increasingly on the management hierarchy above the driver. While I myself value on-the-job training enormously, and appreciate the importance of actual driving experience to management qualifications, these concepts do not play as well to many jurors. Most jurors would probably consider training as a pilot invaluable to the qualifications of an air traffic controller. But they would be horrified to learn that this was all the training the controller had. More and more formal education will be needed to keep pace with the race to punitive damages. Those who increasingly fall behind may be forced to drop out.

If we let it, the NATMI course (and similar efforts like it) could make major contributions to industry safety, and help reduce exposure correspondingly. Some day, it may even be considered one of the decade’s more important developments. The key notion here, of course, is the term “could.” Few things in life have much value apart from the use one makes of them. The handful of motorcoach safety directors currently NATMI-certified are more a novelty than a force. But this may change if we make the effort. And while the course may be only a starting point, it is both an excellent and noteworthy one.

Input and Incentives

Those individuals wishing to learn more about this course, and when it will be offered in the future, are directed to NATMI’s website (www.natmi.org). Or one may contact NATMI’s Director of Business Development, Emery Palmer (palmer@natmi.org).

While the value of taking the course was evident on its own terms, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, by attending it, my personal automobile insurance premium would be reduced by $100 a year for the next three years. (This effectively eliminated my hotel, meal and taxi costs.) Such reductions are typically designed for the drivers’ education courses commonly taught by stand-up comedians and other individuals whose principal expertise lies in keeping the attendees awake. So I had little trouble convincing my agent to afford me similar reductions for attending a 16-hour workshop designed to certify the Safety Directors of common carrier transportation companies employing professional drivers operating $400,000, twenty-ton vehicles carrying 47 to 55 passengers for days at a time. Frankly, I think my automobile underwriter got a bargain.

Publications: National Bus Trader.