Operator Training with Data

Nov. 17, 2015

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals.

An old-fashioned idea that predates all the glitzy gadgets marching across the technology parade ground is proving yet again that it is still the easiest and most dependable method of measuring success: the report card.

The basic role of the report card hasn’t changed, but when combined with telematics, fleet professionals are discovering the combination is an excellent management tool to teach drivers and machine operators techniques that improve their driving habits simply by handling the equipment the way manufacturers intended and to do it safely.

On-highway fleet managers have already experienced the benefits of telematics coaching, and true to existing historic trends, the coaching method has already begun to cross over to the off-road fleets.

Tim Morgan, equipment general foreman for Branch Highways, is responsible for a fleet of 291 pickups and cars, plus an off-road fleet of an additional 290 units. He has worked for several years with the telematics program installed on equipment by manufacturers, and today, anything he purchases comes with factory-installed telematics, he says.

“We bought our first off-road equipment with telematics about four years ago,” Morgan says. “Today, about 30 percent of the off-highway fleet has the technology, and that is run through operations. We are using the program on the on-highway fleet, but it is administered by the safety department of Branch Highways’ parent company, the Branch Group.

“Telematics is just another tool that gives you the advantage of managing remotely, rather than having people spend the time driving to a work site to put their hands and eyes on the equipment,” Morgan says. “Speaking only for Branch Highways, to me this is a big help. We are using more and more technology all the time for fleet management, for coaching operators in safer and better machine operating techniques, all of which help the bottom line.”

Danny Minnix is director of safety and risks for the Branch Group. He is responsible only for the highway fleet when it comes to coaching drivers. With his current system, Minnix obtains driver data that include speed time (which tells him only the maximum speed), idle time, and location of the vehicle. “Knowing the location of the vehicle is very important,” he says. Recently he received a telephone call saying “an event” had occurred involving one of the company’s vehicles. “When we looked it up in the system, that particular vehicle was 10 miles from where the event occurred and from where the caller said it was. We were able to determine that it was not a valid claim,” Minnix says.

As for speeding events and idle time, Minnix is currently beta-testing a second-generation system from the service provider that “will be much more robust and will give us more than just someone’s maximum speed,” he says. “It will give us speed based on the speed zone. It’s one thing to be doing 10 miles per hour over the limit on an interstate, but it’s quite another matter if you are going 10 miles per hour over the posted speed in a school zone.”

The second-generation technology also will provide information such as hard braking, hard acceleration, and hard cornering. “That is much more important than tracking someone’s maximum speed, as far as analyzing aggressive driver behavior goes,” Minnix says. “Hard braking and hard acceleration are many times more indicative of aggressive driving behavior.”

The system has been designed to create a driver report card. However, Minnix says, “I don’t want to say there is no Big Brother component because there is. You want to encourage the desired behavior, but you still are going to have behavior that isn’t consistent with expected behavior.”

Through the use of telematics, the report card will be set up to weigh certain factors more heavily than others.

“Hard cornering and hard braking are more significant for the report card and will weigh more than speeding infractions, for example,” says Minnix.

Drivers generally are issued their scores on a monthly basis. Although another company may issue them sooner, this gives just the right amount of data for The Branch Group, he says. The report card will tell the driver his general score, tell them where they stand against their peers, and tell each driver what their individual goal is.

To help diminish the shadow of Big Brother—and drive home the point that this is a positive management tool—incentives will be given to drivers who have better scores. Minnix says those incentives will be worked out before the program’s launch. They might be gift certificates, a gift card, mention in the company newsletter, or a combination of all.

“We want to offer incentives for positive behavior,” he says. “Maybe recognizing the top 10 employees of the month would be an incentive.”

A problem that still needs to be reconciled is what to do with the bottom categories that flag at-risk behavior.

“As an employee of our company, if someone takes unnecessary risks with one of our vehicles they are risking the retirement of everyone who works in the company,” Minnix says. “We have to address corrective action as well as the positive.”

Although there hasn’t been enough time to see what impact a telematics coaching program will have, improved driver behavior has already been detected, says Minnix, in a reduced number of speeding alerts.

“We had what we considered a high threshold for speeding, and since we started tracking it, we noticed that it was working its way down.”

Other benefits that are quite possible from telematics coaching—in fact one of the primary reasons the technology is being explored—are increased safety and, thus, insurance cost reduction, Minnix says. The other benefit will come from controlling idle time, he says.

“I’m told by our operations people that every hour an engine idles is like putting 30 miles on the engine. So, if you have hundreds of thousands of idle time hours over the year, that means you have idled several vehicles out of your fleet every year. Although fuel prices have come down a lot, that is still a benefit, along with less repair on the vehicle,” he says.

Reducing vehicle idle time is also important to John Billingsley, safety director of G&P Trucking Co. The truckload carrier has a fleet of 700 units operating primarily in the Southeast. From South Carolina to Georgia to Virginia, the company transports sea ocean vessel containers in and out of ports in Charleston, Savannah, and Norfolk. It also has several dedicated locations for warehouse distribution, with two major maintenance facilities.

“We have a huge amount of telematics available to us that tells us how much time a vehicle has been sitting at a customer location, for example. From a safety standpoint, we can get speed, travel distance, and since we have event recorders as well, we can tell if we have distraction issues, seat belt compliance, phone use compliance, improper lane changes, and whether complete stops are made at stop signs,” Billingsley says.

That array of data is used to coach drivers, he says, explaining that the company currently has a no-negative-consequence policy.

“Our main telematics system, the SmartDrive event recorders, gives us a back-office application that provides each driver with a score. You receive points for policy violations, following distance violations, and no points when no violations are made.”

That number is “normalized” by dividing the number of hours a driver sits behind the wheel to make it fair across the board, he says. A driver can have access to his score through any smartphone or online device.

He says drivers with scores of 100 or less for four weeks in a row are eligible “right now through the end of the year for a monthly drawing for $1,000. We are also tossing around other incentives ideas such as pay raises being contingent on your ability to maintain an appropriate score.”

Everybody is coached on how the system works, how you earn points, and what triggers an event. “Just because you have an event doesn’t mean you are going to get points,” Billingsley says. “Hitting a big enough bump in the road can trigger an event. It is the observations that are made after the event that really dictate whether you get points or not.”

Again, because of the Big Brother syndrome, Billingsley has worked out several methods to assure drivers that telematics coaching is a positive thing. For instance, the company has hired a driver-improvement coach who is in a nonsupervisory role. His primary responsibility is to educate and train.

“He is a former driver with the company, so he has been there, done that, and knows all the mistakes,” Billingsley says. “He is a good listener and builds a rapport with the drivers. That allows him to pass along information that can help drivers reduce their score.” 

Another practice that goes a long way toward helping drivers see telematics coaching as a positive thing is that, “We use the word score, not safer. The lower your score the safer you are. We don’t emphasize the word safety. We just mention that your score is low and, by the way, congratulations. Since 100 or less is the goal, reducing your score reduces the risk of accidents. And that’s the whole purpose: to reduce the risks.”

He takes it a step further. For example, if you are driving around and your score indicates you are an excellent driver, then if you do make a mistake, it is much more easily forgiven due to your excellent driving performance. “It’s like accident forgiveness,” he says.

In the words of a song that’s as old as the report card, by “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative,” so far this approach has worked quite well, Billingsley says.

“In the past, we have had rear-end collisions that would typically cost the driver his job. But with collision avoidance devices and event recorders, we have been able to take an accident and, rather than costing the driver his job, we simply route him to pick up a new truck, for instance, and continue on his way.

Actually, the use of telematics as a safety device is new to the company. Billingsley says using the technology for that purpose started a little over a year ago. 

“We have had telematics for a long time to tell us certain things, but now with telematics coaching on top of cameras, it’s like introducing replay to any sporting event.” That changes everything, he says.

“By using an instant replay video format and not just data, it helps us better understand what’s going on rather than making educated guesses. It takes all the guesswork out of what really happened.”

And, with a little tweaking and modification, there is no reason to think telematics coaching won’t be just as effective in off-road equipment applications.

“We’ve been tailoring our approach to safety on what the operator would tell us. Now, we are basing (our analysis) on what the operator, video and telematics tell us—all three of those things. And we’re finding that the more information you share with the driver, the more accurate the analysis is,” Billingsley says.

“It’s not that drivers aren’t telling you the truth,” he says. “He is only telling you his version of what happened. Even if you gave him truth serum, he can’t tell you everything. He can only remember what he remembers.”

Having telematics and video running on top of what the driver says gives you the whole picture of what’s taking place, says Billingsley.

Billingsley sees telematics coaching as the future of operator improvement. There are no other tools that can work in conjunction with each other, he says.

“You will never have another better opportunity to be able to train and coach than you have when all three of these are running together.”