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August 15, 2016

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Truckies go to class to improve safety, efficiency

TRUCK drivers, who spent a good share of their lives on the road, are known for spreading “urban legends.” The biggest myth they have ever created is about themselves: give truck drivers and their rigs a wide berth; they are dangerous.

The myth unfortunately holds some truths. China’s 30 million truck drivers, who carry three-quarters of the nation’s freight traffic, are involved in about 70 percent of road accidents.

Volvo Trucks Driver Development program is betting that a little training goes a long way in making trucking safer.

Last month, in the Jiangsu Province city of Suzhou, a logistics hub in the Yangtze Delta, the academy feted its eighth graduating class after a 10-day “summer camp.”

The “students,” when they arrived at the camp, all looked forward to driving better imported cars. Upon graduation, they couldn’t wait to bring home their knowledge of how to drive better.

You Weitao, a veteran driver who operates a fleet of 15 domestic trucks in Hebei Province, was among those in the training camp. He said he never thought his driving skills left so much to be desired, until he underwent one-on-one instruction at the program.

“I discovered many devils in the detail,” he said. “It has inspired me to pay more attention to how my hired drivers handle the trucks for my company.”

The training is all about driving safety and efficiency. It can be a steep curve of unlearning and then relearning.

“You should drive pretending there is no foot brake,” Cui Neng, senior trainer of Volvo Trucks Driver Development program told the class. “Instead, you have to rely on your perceptions, always bearing in mind a safe distance, as if you were driving in a bubble.”

For truck deceleration, shifting down a gear is better than braking, which should be reserved for emergencies, the drivers are told.

The enormous inertia of a truck, which is allowed a maximum load of up to 55 tons in China, makes emergency stopping over a short distance quite a demanding task. Drivers are told the safe distance for a truck should be 15 seconds away from any foreseeable road conditions, instead of the normal 8 to 10 seconds.

Some Chinese truckies let gravity do all the work on downhill slopes, shifting their rig into neutral gear despite the risk of losing control. That shocking fact was revealed by Zhai Xuehun, president of Beijing Chinaway Technologies, whose G7 logistics IT platform is involved in a joint study of big data with Volvo Group China.

The motivation for such misbehavior is simple. For each kilometer of free coasting, one yuan of fuel consumption is saved. That can add up to a lot of money on long-haul trips.

Cui told the drivers that fuel can be saved in much safer ways, such as eliminating unnecessary braking and then subsequent acceleration, and shortening the time of engine idling at road tollbooths. The habits of truck drivers can affect fuel consumption by 20 percent, and improper driving can increase that to 50 percent, he said.

“Truck driving may be becoming more autonomous, but human factors still play a big role in driving efficiency,” said Zhang Jian, dean of Volvo Trucks Driver Development program. “Domestic truck companies and brand generally lack adequate driver training. Volvo hasn’t done enough either.”

Since the training classes began two years ago, the program has certified about 160 drivers. The hands-on nature of the courses allows only a limited number of participants.

With better driving skills, the graduates look for higher-paying jobs at big logistics companies, which deploy imported trucks and generally offer better working conditions. Most of the trucking jobs in China today come from small fleet owners engaged in cutthroat competition.

Truck driving can be a lonely job, but it still requires professionalism, discipline and independence.

“It is also a noble job,” said Cui. “Delivering goods all over the country is the driving force of our economy.”

The prime years for truck drivers are between the ages of 30 and 45. After that, many go into fleet management.

The program recently added management training to its curriculum.

Yes, there is an “urban legend” here, too. It’s about a manager who came to newly trained drivers from the academy only a year after his own graduation.


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