Sitting in a spacious office overlooking the Dubai Airport Free Zone, Stefan Schnitzler quite succinctly summarises the importance of a truck driver’s role: “The brain of a truck-trailer combination is the driver,” says Schnitzler, importer/dealer support manager, MAN Truck & Bus Middle East.
And if this brain doesn’t work properly, it is potentially hazardous for not just the driver and vehicle, but for other road users, the infrastructure and the environment in general.
When fleets invest in adequately and rigorously training their drivers, however, savings are potentially tremendous. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), implementing even a few simple changes in driving techniques produces sizeable fuel savings of 5% or more. A Canadian study estimates that many fleets could achieve a 10% fuel economy improvement through driver training and monitoring. Another study for the European Commission estimates that an annual one-day driver-training course improves truck fuel efficiency by 5%.
While these figures are in a North American and European context, the key benefits of driver training programmes can be realised worldwide: boosting fuel savings and road safety while cutting down on carbon emissions and TCO.
Modern commercial vehicles across different segments are all engineered for performance, efficiency and safety. However, these capabilities are optimised only when the driver fully understands how his actions affect the machine, points out Sohel Buzai, technical trainer at Jaidah Heavy Equipment, the Qatari dealer of Isuzu vehicles.
At Jaidah Heavy Equipment, driver training is offered to improve skills and understanding in a range of different areas: prevention of failures and breakdowns; effective clutch, gear and brake operation; loading and load-securing; preventive maintenance; handling emergency situations; and defensive driving techniques, among others.
But the key question remains: do fleet owners in the region understand the benefits of investing in driver training? Very few currently do, says Hany Tawfiq, general after-sales manager, Daimler Commercial Vehicles at Emirates Motor Company, the Abu Dhabi-based dealer of Mercedes-Benz. “I would say the majority don’t yet understand. Maybe they realise there is a problem but don’t understand how much this impacts their cost, safety and downtime.”
Ian Drury, head of Volvo Trucks’ driver development programme in the Middle East, says that awareness of the importance of driver training varies from market to market across the region. “In some markets, where you have very big fleets, like in Saudi Arabia, a lot of the transport managers are from Europe and they definitely have this in their minds. In the UAE, specifically, we do have a lot of companies now which are starting to think of total cost of ownership.”
While many still remain purchase price-oriented, this new approach on TCO – more common among the younger generation of managers – is leading to a greater awareness of the benefits of training, Drury says.
It’s challenging to quantify the savings and improvements that can be achieved by investing in training, as these tend to vary across markets, according to the skill level of the drivers that need to be trained. “When you’re talking about improvements, if you take a truck driver in Europe, you could maybe improve him by 2-3%. If you take a driver in the Middle East, you could probably improve him 30%, because where you’re starting from is so much further down the scale.”
Even when fleet owners and operators decide to educate their drivers, numerous obstacles remain to be surmounted, experts agree. One of the foremost challenges is the competence level of drivers, along with language barriers when it comes to training, Drury says.
Another challenge is that many fleet operators do not provide an environment conducive for training, Schnitzler remarks. For instance, training rooms are generally not provided, and when they are, they cannot accommodate the number of drivers who need training. Drivers often end up waiting outside, which can be especially harsh in the summer months.
In addition, fleet owners are typically not concerned about test trips adequately simulating daily operations, in terms of distance travelled or loads carried, Schnitzler notes. “They think we can do it on the yard, and 50 metres backwards and forwards should be enough. No, it isn’t.”
Some operators also do not understand that a loaded truck or truck with trailer is required for training, in order to best mimic the driver’s daily duties, he says. “So it’s a waste of efforts, and of human resources.”
With so many poorly trained heavy vehicle drivers on roads around the region, it’s unsurprising that several inefficient or downright dangerous practices are commonplace, the trainers say.
“An example is when it comes to fuel consumption, a lot of the drivers here come from countries which are using what we call high-rev engines in trucks,” Drury says. Because drivers are so used to hearing the engines rev, they drop gears to hear the engine. “With a Volvo engine, you don’t need to drop gears because you’re not getting any more power out of the engine. You’re just wasting fuel by increasing the RPM.”
Braking habits in the Middle East are also problematic, as observed from data gathered through telematics systems, he says. Drivers in the region typically tend to brake a lot more frequently on a long stretch of road than their counterparts in Europe, for instance.
This arises primarily due to not being proactive on roads, Drury explains. “This can be dangerous. If they’re heavily loaded and braking hard, they can lose control.”
Moreover, a lack of spatial awareness is common, with many drivers tending to focus only on traffic in front and not paying enough attention to what’s happening on either side and behind the vehicle, Schnitzler says.
Given the challenges and negative practices unique to the GCC and wider Middle East, it stands to reason that any education imparted has to be modified for the region’s needs. “We have to adapt our training methods to suit our markets down here,” Drury says. “We basically take away things from the European driver development programme that we cannot use and put in things which we find more important in the Middle East.”
Training programmes also need to be culturally adapted, points out Brodie von Berg, sales and marketing director, MiX Telematics Middle East and Asia. Cultural differences may manifest themselves in terms of risk tolerance; for instance, in some countries and cultures, driving without a seatbelt is acceptable.
At EMC, training courses delivered generally include a theoretical and practical part, with a focus on fuel economy as well as safety, Tawfiq says. The theory part discusses topics like driving techniques, vehicle checks, gear shifting and selection, and so on. The second component focuses on how these can be done practically.
While in Europe, the emphasis is more on classroom-style theoretical instruction, in the Middle East, Volvo Trucks tends to focus more on hands-on training, Drury says. “We put more emphasis on the practical side of driving. We have our telematics system, and we can use this to see driver habits or driver behaviour.”
The system tracks how the drivers are driving, and then a programme is tailor-made for their needs. “Telematics is a fantastic tool that we use, because you can see very quickly what the driver is doing wrong by looking at these reports generated from the systems.”
Training is also offered for different applications, on- and off-road, with many manufacturers offering specially tailored modules for a variety of missions. MiX Telematics also delivers training for light and heavy commercial vehicles as well as special applications like dangerous goods transport, von Berg notes. “In the region, we see specialised training around armoured vehicles as well, such as in Iraq, for instance. The vehicle characteristics are very different when you drive an armoured or cash-in-transit vehicle.”
In addition, the telematics provider is transitioning towards technology that enables it to identify differences in drivers through psychology-based assessments, which can help determine the personality profile of the driver. “By using these, we can focus more heavily on areas of deficiencies of certain drivers. Another technology which we have readily available today and we’re using for our customers is also online training.”
The shift towards online training accompanies a trend towards mobility as more people becoming more comfortable and familiar with smartphone use. However, von Berg acknowledges that online training modules may not be feasible for all drivers, particularly given varying levels of tech-savviness. When online training packages aren’t feasible, instructor-led training is usually offered.
With any kind of training, however, the support of the drivers’ immediate supervisors is crucial for a company to realise the benefits. “The key is how you transfer the lessons from training into daily life, and the transport management plays a significant role here,” Schnitzler says, noting that direct supervisors should support drivers in implementing lessons from training and applying to their job.
“When you learn a new behaviour, it takes time to make it stick,” he adds. In fact, there may be more mistakes in the first few days after training, and transport managers should be accommodating. Ensuring middle management buy-in is crucial for fleets, as drivers generally don’t have any real decision-making power to make operational changes.
Moreover, the current gap in skill level among drivers across the region is almost solely due to the lack of emphasis on adequately training them, he concludes.
“It’s not the fault of the driver per se. When we start working with them, they’re interested and want to know more. Drivers are interested in changing and becoming better if you provide the opportunity to them.”