We all know change is hard, especially when it is a behavior that has evolved into an everyday habit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of most automotive fleet and commercial drivers is 55 years old, meaning they have spent more than 30 years behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. With that amount of time on the road, it’s possible that these veteran drivers have developed poor, self-taught driving habits of which they are unaware. They may deem their habitual driving actions, like braking late for an approaching red light, speeding or rolling through a stop sign, as safe, because they have never endured any penalty or consequence from their actions.

How can training professionals help fleet drivers objectively assess their behaviors behind the wheel, come to grips with their deficiencies and become motivated to reduce the high risk levels they have unwittingly created?

Personalized coaching is a proven tool to create behavioral change in adult learners, because it encourages them to elevate their self-awareness by identifying underlying beliefs and attitudes through observational development and exploratory conversations. To get started, drivers should take some type of self and risk assessment that measures their situational and behavioral traits and coping mechanisms, which instructors can then use as a baseline to create a personalized coaching plan. Once the driver safety coach analyzes the responses and has the necessary background, he or she can effectively conduct a positive coaching session by catering to the individual’s learning characteristics, using the proper communication methods and forming a mutually agreed-upon course of action.

Understanding Adult Learners

Adult learners have preferred learning methods, and catering to an individual’s preferences allows for a more impactful experience and helps reduce any initial apprehension to change.

There are seven characteristics that are important to recognize when it comes to working with adult learners, according to researcher Malcolm Knowles. Adult learners:

  • Are goal-oriented
  • Are self-directed
  • Rely on past learning experience
  • Need respect
  • Have established habits and opinions
  • Relate what they learn to prior knowledge
  • Want to be active participants in learning

Some adult learners may exhibit a few of these characteristics, while others may show one. For instance, drivers with years of experience behind the wheel may demonstrate that they have established habits and opinions and relate learning to prior knowledge. Learners who display these characteristics tend to be hesitant to accept change, because the coaching process is trying to alter what they believe or how they act.

The only way to change this frame of reference is to demonstrate that it contradicts their values and to help them make a personal and emotional connection to the issue. Most importantly, the learner should take the lead in identifying examples from real-life driving experiences.

Using Core Communication Methods

When it comes to communicating with adult learners, instructors and coaches should focus on non-confrontational methods that include open-ended questions and strong reinforcement techniques.

Communication during on-road driving exercises is crucial. While observing, the instructor should engage with the driver by validating good behaviors and asking open-ended questions that challenge the driver to evaluate their reasoning behind poor driving habits. For example, if a driver waited until the last minute to brake for a traffic light turning red, the instructor should take note of that behavior and ask questions to learn why they did not begin to slow down earlier. The driver’s response could potentially be that they “made the light” in the past using a similar approach.

Through a continued non-confrontational line of questioning, the coach would guide the driver to arrive at their own conclusion about why this action could lead to a collision and even a fatality. Engaging in open dialogue helps reinforce positive habits and bridges the gap between drivers’ self-taught behaviors and the potential dangers that lie ahead with poor driving habits.

Forming a Mutual Understanding and Plan

The final component to an effective coaching process for fleet drivers is collaborating with them to reflect on their performance and create a customized plan of improvement. Once drivers become more aware of their capabilities, they must be actively involved in identifying which habits to address and correct and which to reinforce.

It’s important to note that behavioral deficiencies behind the wheel cannot be addressed overnight, and coaches should emphasize this fact with drivers so they don’t become discouraged. By developing a measurable plan that focuses on mutually agreed-upon areas of improvement, drivers and their coaches can set short- and long-term goals, and drivers will be more likely to change their poor driving behaviors moving forward.

While change is difficult, organizations that focus on the fundamentals of a successful driver safety coaching process can create positive behavior change among their drivers. The key is to have engage drivers in a learning environment that encourages them to arrive at an objective self-assessment; internalize which behaviors are risky; and become personally motivated to make lasting, positive change.