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Taking safety seriously

Taking safety seriously

Drawing in part upon his experiences as a police officer and a road train operator, Dean Clarke, Driver Trainer at Hopkins Transport Australia, has established a National award winning driver training program that delivers tangible safety benefits as well as a healthier bottom line.

PM: How did you get involved in training?
DC: Not long after I started driving here at Hopkins Transport Australia in Tamworth I was asked to do some informal training. It was a bit haphazard, with no real structure. I wouldn’t see guys for three months and then I’d spend all my time getting them back to square one. I thought if I could spend a continuous period with each driver it would be more effective, so I took the initiative to put together a comprehensive training program. I approached Geoff and Steve Hopkins with my proposal and it all went from there. I give credit to them for believing in me.

PM: What was your inspiration?
DC: I could see that a lot of basic skills were lacking. I wanted people to be able to do more than just enough to get their licence, and ideally to have some real world experience before then. Many companies seem to have a short-term outlook and too often have driver trainers in name only. I’m strongly against that. Hopkins Transport wanted immediate impact rather than wait on the wider industry and government bodies to come up with solutions to the driver shortage. The initial aim was to make our drivers better and safer, not necessarily improve fuel economy and maintenance costs. That’s been the cream on top.

PM: Have you achieved some good results in those two areas?
DC: Since starting the program in October 2016 fuel consumption across the fleet has improved 23 per cent and maintenance costs have gone down by 43 per cent. And that was with no new units. Our average driver age has also dropped from almost 50 years to 43.4 through getting younger people employed.

PM: How do you pick the ‘right’ driver?
DC: We have a ‘no dickhead’ policy, no ‘know-it-alls’ or ‘big-timers’. If they’re not looking after the equipment the lack of mechanical empathy can flow on to others. If someone applies for a job I don’t really care so much about how well they can drive. I look for good attitude. We mostly hire HR licensed drivers and train them up. The training truck is purposely and relatively under powered (450hp) so they have to do a lot of gear changing and think well ahead.

PM: Where did you start with your program?
DC: One of the first things we addressed was getting everyone to perform basic tasks the same way. For example, we have standardised procedures for coupling trailers. If a major fleet with hundreds of trucks has one trailer dropped per week it might result in $2,000 damage, then that’s $100,000 in a year. Small damages can add up to big bills.

PM: Isn’t a lot of what you advocate merely common sense?
DC: Unfortunately, common sense is not all that common, though what we do is not rocket science. It’s about repeating basic, safe procedures over and over so it becomes automatic. My method is old school and purposely low-tech. Training and attitude are vital as the operator of the vehicle is still human. All of the technology in the world can’t stop the laws of physics.

PM: Was there much push back from drivers?
DC: I’m at the age (42) where I can relate to the young blokes and I’ve got respect from the older ones because I have been around for a while. You have to persevere with them – a classic example is our Queensland manager.  A mature lady with grown-up kids who had never driven a truck before beginning our program, who was initially very reluctant. She now has her HR licence. Her self-belief and confidence levels have improved immensely, she is one of the best operators we’ve got. It empowers people. 

PM: Hopkins Transport Australia specialises in a very specific area of livestock transport, namely day-old chicks. Can your program be applied elsewhere?
DC: There’s no reason why the program can’t be rolled out industry wide. It works. It’s not weight specific. Other companies mightn’t get a 43 per cent reduction in maintenance costs, but even ten or 20 per cent is a good saving. Why spend up to a million dollars on equipment but nothing on teaching the driver how to operate it to the level the owners expect?

PM: How serious has management got to be?
DC: Geoff Hopkins has taught me ‘if it’s hard, its right’. You can’t be an effective driver trainer sitting in the office. You can’t get the results without doing the hard yards with the drivers and spending time in the trucks with them. I ride along regularly on long trips to Sydney and Queensland. I don’t have a desk at the company office. You have to build relationships with your drivers and you can only deal with so many. I reckon the ratio should be about 20 drivers per trainer, much as we have at Hopkins. You’ve got to be an educator, trainer, mentor and counsellor. Sometimes you’ve got to give them some tough love. I believe my background with police work helped equip me for what I do now.

PM: From an overall industry perspective what do you want to see happen?
DC: We must do everything we can to make sure everyone gets home safely every night. If we are serious about road safety we have to start with effective driver education. There should be financial incentives related to good training, such as reduced registration, payroll tax and insurance. We need a pathway for young people to become good drivers via an apprenticeship scheme. Let’s make it professional. Every other trade has apprentices. For such a high-risk occupation to not have some sort of formal education program in place is amateurish. We are playing with people’s lives and training is the future.

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