A Behavioural Analysis of Fleet Driver Safety

To Err is Human

How often have we heard that over 90% of road traffic collisions are due to human error? The implication for organisations is that error prevention is key to managing safety. Many companies therefore design procedures to reduce the chances of driver error taking place, for example, reducing the risk of reversing crashes by asking a fellow worker to guide drivers into a parking space. In principle this sounds like a reasonable approach. If only humans followed procedures and obeyed the rules…

In our experience, companies habitually think in terms of the driver being to blame for their crashes, and take a linear view of the cause-effect relationships between driver error and crash involvement. When it comes to ‘unsafety’ they talk about “human error”, “violation”, “fault”, “failure”, etc. This approach is also apparent in other systems. For example, the driving test as a basic assessment of driving competence provides a ‘fault analysis’ of errors as feedback on test failure.

Questioning this viewpoint for a moment, consider that a driver with a safe driving record will still make mistakes because to err is human – but why do some drivers manage to avoid their errors ending up as a crash? What decades of research in driver behaviour has shown is that there are clear individual differences in driving competence – not all drivers are the same and should not be treated as such. However, many companies use the same behind-the-wheel training intervention as a ‘one size fits all’.

The underlying assumption for on-road fleet driver training is that the crash problem is due to human error and drivers simply need a refresher of their driving skills and knowledge to cure them of being human. But, there are countless studies to show that driver training has little benefit on reducing the risk of crash involvement. Unfortunately, companies often get caught up in a frustrating loop of using the same methods to manage driver risk but see little change in their safety record. This is because the methods used do not address the main contributors to crash involvement.

A Behavioural Approach

DriverMetrics® was established in 2005 to offer a new approach to managing fleet driver risk. The DriverMetrics® approach takes into account organisational behaviour in its measurement and assessment of fleet driver behaviour. What is often neglected is how drivers manage to drive safely most of the time, balancing the conflicting goals of safety and responding to work demands under pressure. A generative culture knows that achieving safety is difficult but safety values and behaviour are fully internalised as beliefs, almost to the point of invisibility. DriverMetrics® adopts a holistic view considering that fleet driver behaviour takes place within a complex set of organisational systems.

Our behavioural approach starts by requiring the organisation to reflect on their policies and procedure as a whole and how the systems themselves might be responsible in part for  crash risk.

Our ‘behavioural analysis’ takes into account a number of individual differences in response to traffic situations assessing personality-based emotional responses to traffic to understand the motives underlying driver behaviour. Self-reported biased beliefs, behavioural risk and ineffective coping strategies are targeted for training to influence the way a driver thinks about risk and perceives risk. Our methods are evidence-based and delivered by a team of professionals and graduates of Cranfield University’s MSc in Driver Behaviour.

A New Way of Thinking about Driver Safety at Work

Some companies might be sceptical about new approaches, while the old method is accepted as ‘time-served’, despite the growing evidence that driver training behind the wheel is not working. When it comes to driver safety and the systems in place to reduce risk, many safety professionals seem more comfortable dismissing new thinking than challenging old thinking but ‘human error’ is not a useful concept in a complex driving situation in which drivers have to make constant adjustments and trade-offs in response to traffic, work demands and their own personal needs and motives as a driver.

A good example of how old methods prevail can be illustrated with reference to how a company tries to understand safety by looking at their crashes. This is rather like trying to understand marital harmony by investigating its discord. Something as complex as a crash is often reduced to a very simple explanation limited to observable behavioural outputs that were recorded at the time of the event e.g. speed, poor weather etc with no reference to driver behaviour and motives. At DriverMetrics, we advocate a behavioural analysis to understand the behaviours that led to those events. This new way of thinking sees human error as a symptom, not the cause of a crash.

The safety profession, by nature, is risk averse and there appears to be a reluctance to question the prevailing wisdom. Psychologists know that human beings often have an inbuilt mental self-defence against new thinking and we may conform to keep the peace or even keep a job. But this means that ineffective approaches are also kept in place and the old methods stay alive for much longer than they should be.

Since DriverMetrics® was established in 2005, we have been pointing out the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, that a behavioural analysis of drivers is required in order to manage driver safety. Innovative thinking amongst our client base has led to a change in approach to managing driver safety at work and they are reaping the rewards in terms of a reduction in the frequency and severity of crashes.