Training drivers to expect the unexpected when on the roads could cut accidents by 11%. Ben Rooth looks at what hazard perception training is and what it includes
A fleet driver’s time on the road is fraught with danger. From cars parked on the kerb, to children’s play areas near the road and vehicles trying to join the flow of traffic from hidden side streets, hazards lurk everywhere.
But while it is commonplace for drivers to receive training to counter excess speed and harsh braking, should fleets do more to protect employees against these often unseen and unexpected dangers?
Department for Transport (DfT) figures suggest they should, as it estimates that widespread hazard perception training could account for an 11% reduction in collisions, potentially saving hundreds of lives each year.
The DfT introduced a hazard perception component into the car and motorcycle theory test in 2002, and estimates this has saved around £90 million annually.
This means that while many fleet drivers have undergone some hazard perception training, albeit up to 14 years ago, thousands more would not have received any.
Fleets should look to address this as it is a crucial way to reduce risk, says Shaun Helman, head of transport psychology at the Transport Research Laboratory.
“Hazard perception training is the only skill that we know is related to crash risk,” he says.
“I don’t care how well a driver can corner, I don’t care how well they can accelerate or brake. That’s not of any interest to me as a road safety professional because that’s about driver performance; safety is about how drivers behave and not how they could behave in optimal conditions.
“Hazard perception is the skill of reading the road. It’s not about reacting to things, it’s about anticipating things before they happen so you can carefully manage the situation.
“The better you are at it, generally the fewer accidents you have and, crucially, it can be taught.”
Some potential hazards may seem obvious, such as people stepping off the pavement into the road or vehicles not indicating at roundabouts, but Graham Hurdle, managing director of training provider E-Training World, says that drivers can also identify specific clues that alert them to the need for caution.
“An obvious clue to a hazard would be a roadworks sign, which warns you of the hazard ahead,” he says.
“Other examples are wheelie bins by the side of a road, which tell you it’s bin collection day and is a clue that there may be a dustbin lorry ahead.
“A flashing school sign warns you there’s a school nearby and children may be in the road.
“Fresh horse manure on a country lane is a clue that there may be a rider ahead.
“The better your hazard perception skills, the safer a driver you become as it buys you time.
“Almost all collisions and incidents are caused by human error and it’s either an inability to spot clues to hazards, or being distracted – for example, by being on the phone or setting your sat-nav – that means you miss the clues and end up struggling to avoid the hazard.”
Adrian Hide, senior consultant at driver training company TTC Group, says 95% of road incidents can be directly attributed to driver error and most collisions happen because the driver runs out of space and time.
“Having a good awareness of your surroundings and being able to drive in a proactive, rather than reactive, style is key to safe driving,” he says.
“In our experience, most drivers tend to focus their attention on the area of road directly in front of them, often no further than the vehicle in front.
“This leads to drivers making quick and often ill-thought through decisions to the hazards that present themselves, often with the driver uttering those words: ‘That car pulled out from nowhere’, or ‘he suddenly stopped’.”
Hide added that most drivers recognised ‘actual’ hazards – such as not being able to have clear visibility around parked cars – but it was the ‘potential’ hazards that took them by surprise.
Andy Wheeler, head of AA Drivetech’s training academy, says: “In reality, if you can’t perceive the hazard, why would you drive more slowly or carefully?”
As well as addressing driver behaviours or skills, hazard perception coaching should be tailored to address specific journey-related risks, says Will Murray, research director at eDriving Fleet.
“For the real value of hazard perception coaching to be gained for fleets, it must meet the specific needs of drivers – regardless of whether it’s coached online, on a one-to-one basis or in a classroom setting,” he says.
“Consequently, the coaching needs to be based on as much evidence as possible and there are many different factors that need to be considered.
“This might involve chatting to drivers following travel planning, journey and route risk assessments, changes in company policy, at-fault collisions, scrutinising driver licence data or otherwise gauging their attitude to risk through online or in-vehicle assessments
“At this point, a judgement can be made about how to implement training and what it needs to encompass.”
Murray adds that managers also need to be engaged and coached in how their attitudes, leadership and decisions can affect the hazard perception of drivers.
Wheeler encourages his delegates to adopt an “expect the unexpected” approach throughout hazard perception training.
“I ask them to continuously – and consciously – make a dynamic risk assessment of their driving environment,” he says.
“We suggest fleet drivers take a COAST approach to driving: Concentration, Observation, Awareness, Space and Time.
“They need to be concentrating as much as possible, especially when they believe the risk is high, observing potential hazards, being aware of their surrounding environment and, finally, giving themselves enough space and time to make good decisions.
“For example, a car will cover more than 50 metres in two seconds when travelling at 70mph, so making a good decision while tailgating a car in front is virtually impossible.”
Hide adds: “Once armed with this information, a driver can make an informed decision as to what course of action to follow.
“A reduction in speed buys valuable time which can help a driver avoid sudden and erratic decisions.
“Taking drivers through a number of scenarios – urban, rural and high-speed roads – will provide them with an enhanced knowledge of the type of situations they would encounter and develop a more planned approach to dealing with them.
“Drivers undertaking hazard perception training generally report that they notice things on the road that previously they may have ignored and those who adopt a proactive approach to dealing with hazards will be much safer, have fewer collisions, a smoother drive, reduced fuel consumption and be less stressed – all massively beneficial for an organisation’s fleet safety.”
Worst five hazards faced by fleet drivers
Time pressures: Fleet drivers should treat driving for work as an activity in itself, not just time to catch up on phone calls, for example. Distractions in the car can reduce a driver’s ability to see hazards ahead and react to them in good time.
Deliveries: Making deliveries in unfamiliar areas can be high risk. AA DriveTech recommends drivers undertake a “dynamic risk assessment” and concentrate hard when in high hazard environments.
Foreign vehicles: With left-hand drive vehicles, the visibility is often restricted and drivers are advised to pass with extreme care. When overtaking, do not travel alongside for any length of time and keep plenty of space around you.
Cyclists: Cyclists are often at risk when drivers turn left. Drivers are encouraged to be aware of nearside blind spots when turning left, especially when driving a large vehicle.
Source: AA DriveTech
Case study: The Riverside Group
National housing association The Riverside Group has seen its at-fault collisions fall each year after putting its drivers through hazard perception training.
The organisation began offering the training to employees through RoSPA’s driver development programme to support its newly-created driving at work policy.
“We wanted to ensure that any person driving on company-related business was doing so safely,” says Paul Kennedy, head of health, safety and environment for the housing association.
“I was impressed with how well received the training was – of the 200 delegates, 91% said they would recommend RoSPA’s driver development training to others.”
The bespoke course began with a trainer sitting down with two delegates in a classroom situation and talking through a range of relevant modules, including hazard perception.
Subsequently, each participant received a highway code refresher before being taken out on the road by the RoSPA instructor.
“The instructor initially observed the delegate’s driving and then – once they’d pulled in – he debriefed them,” says Kennedy.
“I remember the instructor noting that he’d like to see more careful checking in the left wing mirror prior to turning left to ensure that delegates would notice any cyclists.
“The instructor then got behind the wheel and talked the delegates through any hazards that might arise.
“For example, he made it clear that it was necessary to slow as you approach the brow of a hill to ensure that any hazards can be seen.
“And there were other more subtle tips – if dustbins were collected at the side of the road with their handles facing the kerb then it was reasonable to believe that you might find a bin lorry round the next corner.”
More than 78% of Riverside’s delegates reported that their anticipation of hazards had improved as a result of the training.
In addition, 77% also noticed a difference in how they positioned their vehicle in relation to other road users.
“Three years after the training was carried out, drivers still tell me how useful it was – which is the best possible endorsement,” adds Kennedy.
Case Study: BT
Hazard perception training is one of the key areas that BT group safety advisor Dave Wallington looks to ensure is appropriately covered whenever he commissions driver training programmes.
“We use online risk assessment tests, which have a hazard perception component, to identify issues before those drivers are involved in collisions,” he says.
Wallington oversees the safety of BT’s 35,000 vehicles – which is one of the largest fleets in Europe – with 65,000 executives, sales personnel and engineers on the road at some point during the year.
Online risk assessment tests are used in the first instance to gauge a driver’s abilities and attitude towards hazards.
If a need for further training is identified, then either classroom or one-to-one in-cab training is implemented.
He says: “I’ve also found that hazard perception training can provide a very useful route into discussions about safe driving practices and safe speeds.
“And this can be very useful, for example, if you’ve got drivers who’ve had at-fault rear end collisions which are possibly attributable to speed.
“In effect, I’ve found it a useful way of challenging behaviour.”
Wallington continues: “I think that hazard perception training can also be very useful for fleets with light commercial vehicles.
“The risks associated with driving these are different to cars – for example, the visibility of blind spots is frequently different.
“But if you can ensure that your drivers have training in this area then you immediately start to change their behaviour when they get behind the wheel.”