Driver Training Programs Can Help Reduce Accidents

Much has been written in this column and in other places about apparatus accident prevention, with the focus on improved apparatus design and technology. These changes are very important, and it should not be forgotten that they also improve driver capabilities. Nonetheless, the vast majority of all motor vehicle accidents are caused by human error.

Our history reveals that most apparatus accidents involving firefighter fatalities are single-vehicle accidents. As fire departments, we must always focus on driver capabilities, which are enabled by excellence in training, experience, attitude, awareness, emotional stability and medical and physical condition.

Most departments do their driver training in-house. These programs should be based on the National Fire Protection Association 1002 Standard on Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications. There are various protocols, checklists and competencies within the fire service that departments use. There is also assistance from other agencies, of which fire departments may or may not be aware. We will take a look at three of those systems. There are probably several other good systems, but these are three of some of the better known that are recognized and used by fleet and risk managers in both the private and public sectors.

The Smith System was developed and copyrighted in the early 1950s by the late Harold L. Smith. It is based on five keys:


  1. Aim high in steering. Looking high means looking into the distance, where the vehicle will be in fifteen seconds.
  2. Get the big picture. Scan mirrors every five to eight seconds and know what is happening, or about to happen, around you.
  3. Keep your eyes moving. Avoid focusing on one object for more than a couple of seconds.
  4. Leave yourself an out. Try to surround yourself with as much space as possible.
  5. Make sure they see you. Use of lights – day and night – and eye contact are crucial.



The Smith System has been used by many major private fleets such as FedEx, Exxon Mobile, J.B. Hunt, GE, and AT&T. Cities and counties that have used it include Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Montgomery County and St. Paul. For information, go to www.smith-system.com

The Smith System now has a focused program for emergency response vehicles with four areas of concentration – forward motion collision prevention, rollover collision prevention, intersection collision prevention and backing collision prevention.

Choice Theory

The National Traffic Safety Institute (NTSI) was formed in 1974 by Dr. Jeffrey M. Chase, a former firefighter. The premise of this system is to emphasize skills, law and knowledge to empower drivers to find new ways to break old habits. It applies what it calls “Choice Theory” to a behavior modification strategy that involves participants in a process of identifying and modifying high-risk behaviors. The “tenets” of Choice Theory are: first, the only person whose behavior we can control is our own; second, behavior is made up of four components, acting, thinking, feeling and physiology; third, behavior is chosen, and we have direct control over the acting and thinking; and fourth, we can only control our feelings.

The NTSI system is a four-hour course with an additional two-hour module for fire departments. The key components of the just released fire department module are fire department collisions, mental awareness, stress awareness, aggressive driving, response driving, sensory overload and anger management.

VFIS Obstacle Course

NTSI clients include Wal-Mart, U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Forest Service, Time Warner Cable, Holiday Inn, Texas Instruments, the U.S. Safety Council and the U.S. Army. For information, go to www.ntsi.com

Perhaps the best known outside driver training program for the fire service is offered by VFIS, the largest insurer of fire departments in the country. Its obstacle course has been successful for thirty years in helping drivers understand how to maneuver apparatus in slow-speed tight situations, including backing. All that is needed to conduct this course is a large parking lot, a few dozen traffic cones and a VFIS instructor.

Though slow speeds are typically not firefighter killers, the number of low-speed accidents causes millions of dollars of unnecessary damage annually. In addition to this proven program, VFIS has also introduced training modules for responding in personal vehicles, navigating safely through intersections, rollover prevention, and a training/resource kit for operating at roadway emergency scenes. For information, go to www.vfis.com.

Other programs are available to improve driving. There are also “hard” products on the market to assist in driving that have accompanying driver training programs.

For example, DriveCam is an on-board video that continually records the scene in front of the vehicle and subsequent driver reactions. By default, it becomes a training tool to coach better driving techniques. It also provides instant driver feedback. For information, go to www.drivecam.com.

Driving Simulators

Also, Stability Dynamics produces vehicle rollover warning and data recording devices for operator training, operator awareness and vehicle monitoring applications. For information, go to www.stabilitydynamics.com.

Driving simulators are becoming more realistic. Though still very expensive, they are a cheaper alternative to using actual vehicles for higher speeds, off-road recovery and collision avoidance scenarios.

We are beginning to see more and more defense driving ranges developed. These provide excellent hands-on opportunities. Their success is evidenced by the backlog of people wishing to spend time on the ranges to improve their skills.

The NFPA 1500 Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health has an entire chapter devoted to fire apparatus, equipment, and driver/operators. If all departments adhered to the standard with special attention to Chapter 6.2, the driving section, we would see a dramatic drop in accidents. Combined with NFPA 1002, these two standards provide a framework for safe driving. Purchasing a copy of these two standards and complying with their requirements is a very cheap investment in firefighter safety.

The need for improved driver training is increasing daily. This is evidenced by more senior citizens and impaired drivers on today’s highways with their delayed reaction times. Combined with more and more distractions for today’s drivers – cell phones, navigation systems, iPods and audio and visual entertainment – safe driving is more challenging.

Moreover, thanks to the propeller-headed government planners, we are seeing increasing congestion on deteriorating roadways. This is the recipe for road rage and aggressive driving. If the planners had their way, we would respond to emergencies by using mass transit. Though that would virtually eliminate apparatus and firefighter POV accidents, I doubt our customers would be impressed with our service.

Accidents happen. There are many factors that go into safe driving. The programs described above can help your department reduce the number and severity of vehicle accidents. These programs do not replace fire department in-house driver training. They are developed to enrich in-house training.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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