Driver and Management Training
Training is more critical to safety in the transportation industry than in almost any other field. At the same time, many or most incidents that appear to reflect poor training are often an illusion. Instead, the training provided is often adequate, and occasionally excellent, comprehensive and relevant. The incident’s causation often, if not usually, lies elsewhere — particularly in negligent monitoring.
Some aspects of driver training are common to, and much needed by, every sector of the passenger transportation industry. The most salient example is defensive driving – for which all drivers in certain sectors (school bus, transit, motorcoach) are required to obtain certification as a requirement for these drivers obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Other types of driver training, such as wheelchair securement, is typically provided to drivers of only those modes (e.g., complimentary paratransit, non-emergency medical transportation, special education pupil transportation and accessible taxicab service) that transport wheelchair users.
The amount of training, or the length of a complete training program, also varies significantly by industry sector. Some of this is because different types of training is required for different types and sizes of vehicles. As an example, much more training is required to operate a full-size school bus, transit bus or motorcoach. This is due partly to the vehicle’s length and wheelbase, and the challenges of its maneuverability, and partly because such vehicles possess pneumatic or “air” systems — including air brakes and suspension systems, which greatly complicate a number of operating functions from boarding and “kneeling” to braking. At the accident level, while air brakes have their advantages, they elongate a driver’s “reaction time” by roughly half a second on a vehicle whose mass already lengthens is stopping distance compared to a simple automobile, once its brakes are engaged.
Another important training variable relates to whether or not the mode will be transporting disabled passengers, elderly passengers and/or children. Carrying large numbers of such passengers, in particular, requires that drivers be trained about the specific types of disabilities or age and developmental limitations that exist, and the needs of the passengers with these disabilities or limitations. The segment of this training is commonly referred to as “sensitivity” training whose name speaks for itself. In fact, for certain modes, mere training and certification are not even adequate. Instead, drivers must have immediate access to medical, treatment and/or educational records about each individual disabled passenger. For pupil transportation, this access is a formal requirement of the Family Education and Privacy Act (FERPA). For healthcare agencies — including their “Business Associates,” such as providers of non-emergency medical transportation — this requirement is codified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). As per amendments to both FERPA and HIPAA, the failure to provide drivers and attendants/bus monitors with access to such information is often an open path to the assessment of punitive damages.
Another important principle about training is that, for it to have any meaning, it must be understood, retained and applied. I have observed, in hundreds of cases, that there seems to be a duration of service within which the driver’s retention of his or her training is optimal. This is not true for all elements of training, because much of it is constantly practiced and, thus, constantly reinforced. One example of this is vehicle handling and care, enhanced further (for every mode) by the Federal requirement for drivers to conduct pre- and post-trip inspection check-outs of all safety-related vehicle features and equipment before and after, respectively, each shift. Yet other elements that one might think driver would certainly apply – like the principles of defensive driving – are often forgotten over time. Training not commonly employed — like wheelchair securement in modes that rarely transport wheelchair users (motorcoaches provide perhaps the best example) — is easily forgotten, often quickly, and sometimes completely, compounded by the complexity of over 500 models of wheelchairs, few of which have been designed for transportation purposes (these are known as “W-19” wheelchairs). Regardless, the amount of experience at which a driver appears to retain the optimum amount of his or her training, when questioned about it, appears to be about two to three years. Drivers with 20 to 40 years’ experience sometimes cannot cite a single specific element of their training.
There is also a significant disparity between what a driver actually know versus what he or she can articulate (much less under the pressure of deposition or trial testimony). Many things drivers could likely perform “behind the wheel” almost effortlessly are often difficult for them to describe verbally — much less fully, accurately and coherently – when the physical objects to which that training is applied are not lying in front of their eyes. Wheelchair securement provides a salient example of this enigma. As a result, even an excellent and responsible driver may omit critical steps in this process when describing it.
One of the issues of training that often plays into the hands of the plaintiff’s counsel is what I have coined as the “training conundrum.” In simple terms, the better the training was, the less excuse there was for the driver’s failure to execute or mirror it. This “gap” generally reflects a failure in monitoring — frankly, the Achilles Heel of passenger transportation, at least in the United States. More recently, with the explosion of digital technology, and its needless or counterproductive application to a broad range of operation functions, managers (and to a lesser extent, drivers) who formerly possessed a “feel” for operating have been replaced by an army of computer geeks who must execute their operating functions through a hopelessly complex and largely abstract digital “interface.” Unless a satisfactory quantity of technology is applied, properly integrated and continuously used, the more technology employed, the worse monitoring generally becomes. Procedures like reviewing drivers’ logs — I myself reviewed more than 200,000 during the decade I directed my own 70-vehicle paratransit system — are almost unheard of today. Among other factors, this omission accounts for the fact that, among my more than 400 lawsuits, the third most common incident scenario is passenger molestation. Despite all their technology, many of Today’s dispatchers do not even know where their vehicles even are — sometimes for days at a time. In one recent case, a driver molested six different passenger twice a day (on those days when he drove the route upon which they rode) over a period of roughly four years.
Regarding management, the passenger transportation industry is unusual in that there is little training or training documentation of any type for management — unless one considers policy and procedural manuals and driver training documents to comprise them. To be fair, learning on-the-job makes sense for certain functions — particularly dispatching — whose personnel commonly “graduate” from the driver pool, and who, as drivers, excel at service area familiarity, and whose assignments expand gradually as they assist and are mentored by hopefully good and experienced dispatchers already engaged, and who possess considerable experience. In contrast, the lack of formal training for schedulers is a crisis, particularly with respect to efficiency, but also with respect to passenger safety and security: In roughly half of the more than 400 lawsuits in which I have served as an expert, the underlying cause of the incident was a schedule that was too tight. Frankly, dispatchers are almost always far brighter than schedulers, while almost always less-well-educated, and paid significantly less. Similarly, dispatchers are often excellent, whereas most schedulers are childlike in their skills and performance — and have become increasingly dysfunctional as the scheduling process has increasingly been performed by software. In many modes — transit and motorcoach services stand out among the best — training is extensive and detailed. In other modes, like complementary paratransit service, it is often subpar. For example, a comprehensive paratransit system’s training program should include roughly a dozen elements:
- vehicle handling and care
- passenger handling and care
- defensive driving
- service area orientation and map reading
- boarding and alighting (including use of the lift or ramp)
- wheelchair and passenger securement
- sensitivity training (including a detailed overview of most disabilities and the
characteristics and needs of those who possess them)
- seizure and infant seizure training
- CRP and infant CPR training
- Radio communications (including the use of “10-codes”)
- Record-keeping (including how to fill out drivers’ logs)
- Conducting pre-trip and post-trip inspection check-outs
Special education drivers (another form of “demand-responsive” paratransit when it is provided in separate, generally smaller school buses — compared to its provision, in full-size buses, where the special ed students ride alongside general education students) should similarly have most of these elements of training — and, in fact, access to (at minimum) detailed information about every disabled passenger is a formal requirement of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
In contrast, non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) drivers rarely receive any training beyond minimal service area familiarity centering on the key destinations served (e.g., dialysis centers), wheelchair securement and administrative responsibilities – even though most NEMT trips are funded by Medicare and, as a result, require drivers to physically assist all passengers on and off the vehicle, and to physically assist them in their pedestrian or mobility-assistance-driven journey between the vehicle and their origins and destinations. Worse yet, NEMT systems compliant with HIPAA requirements seem to be as rare as four-leaf clovers. As a consequence, plaintiffs’ attorneys in many states enjoy the possibility that, if liability is proven, the presiding judge may likely instruct the jury that it can award punitive damages, which the violation of a Federal regulatory requirement often triggers in most states.
Taxi and shuttle drivers similarly receive very little training beyond service area familiarity or route-and-stop orientation, radio communications, and minimal record-keeping procedures. Passenger assistance is rarely provided, even though it is sorely needed for services deploying van- or minibus conversions with no or poor stepwells, and/or no or poor handrails. Some features of vehicle conversions — such as wide-enough running boards with non-skid surfaces, straps, or handrails installed on the inside panels of swing-out doors (and thus lying in front of alighting passengers) provide considerable improvements, as does the use of a purpose-built, industry-standard foot stool. Regardless, there is an intricate yet critical relationship between the characteristics and configuration of the vehicle and its entrances and exits, and the need for driver assistance to passengers and/or appropriate footstools (particularly when the latter is not mandated, as it rarely is for shuttle services). But in modes like taxi, shuttle and NEMT services, training in this area is typically poor or non-existent. Interestingly, under MediCare regulations, drivers are required to assist every passenger in and out of the vehicle. At the same time, while MediCare is a Federally-funded program, the decision about assisting passengers between the vehicle and the passenger’s origin or destination varies from state to state. In summary, at the outset of a passenger transportation-related lawsuit, many attorneys instinctively assume that negligent training was a major causation factor. In reality, it usually is not, although when it is, poor training is often far less important than some other factors like schedules being too tight.
Regardless, when dealing with training (as well as many other aspects of passenger transportation-related incidents), it is important to distinguish between the genuine causes of an incident and its symptoms. Many of even the finest attorneys mistake symptoms for causes, since a determination of the genuine causes often requires an extensive knowledge of the mode of transportation-in-question, not to mention a sound working knowledge about passenger needs (especially those of children, elderly and disabled passengers), a working knowledge of vehicle and vehicle conversions, and in many cases, at least a sound understanding of basic principles of accident reconstruction (even when the expert-in-question is not a “reconstructionist,” and will not be opining as one). Finding an expert in planning and system design, operations (which includes training and monitoring, among numerous other operating functions), and vehicles (and their specification and maintenance) is a rarity. Yet many, many cases involve interrelationships among these functional areas, and the regulations and industry standards that govern them, and incidents often contain errors and omissions in all these areas which combine to cause them, often in esoteric ways, and where the elimination of even one error or omission among a string of them would more than likely have prevented or mitigated the incident altogether. Otherwise, without extensive knowledge and understanding of all three areas, analysis is greatly handicapped, and many cases are won or lost because of failures at the analytical level far more than they are at the testifying level, or even by the facts themselves, much less testimony about them.