GREY MATTER:

 

Driver age an advancing issue for many


Your best drivers navigate strange city streets, maneuver tight corners, hoist heavy bags and greet your passengers with a smile. And chances are, they do all of that and more with their peak eyesight, strength and agility a few years behind them.

More than half of all bus drivers are 45 or older, according to national statistics, which probably won't come as a surprise to those in charge of hiring and training. And most operators don't see that changing anytime soon.

Most operators find that the unpredictable hours and part-time nature of most driving work keeps many young people — at least those with young families — from considering the job. Paul Feasel, owner of Bliss Charters, Fostoria, Ohio, which won a Golden Safety Award from Lancer Insurance last year, says his applicants  often include school-bus drivers looking for extra income as well as those from other fields looking for "something different." Most are in their mid 50s, and most are recruited by fellow drivers.

While with age comes experience, it also can bring with it diminished eyesight, slower reaction times and health issues that can affect driving performance. According to an FMCSA report from June 2008 on fatal bus accidents, the percentage of driver-error accidents is 32.6 percent for drivers over 60, compared to 29.4 percent for drivers younger than 30, and 24 percent for drivers aged 30 to 60.
(statistic from http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/facts-research/research-technology/report/FMCSA-RRA-09-041_BIFA.pdf)

Continuous training

Of course, most older drivers are still good drivers — and many are excellent drivers. Life experience tends to contribute to good judgment and people skills.

Part of good judgment often involves letting management know if physical problems are beginning to interfere with job performance. Feasel says that his drivers tend to communicate about their issues and are aware of their own abilities. "We do pay attention to our drivers as the driver pool ages. Some of them are looking to slow down a bit. We'll make sure to give them more breaks, or an additional day off, and try to make sure that they get enough rest."

Moreover, Bliss ensures competency in drivers of all ages via yearly implementation of the Smith System.  "The Smith System of defensive driving is a two-year certification, but we find that drivers start to slip after 13 months or so, so we've made some modifications," Feasel told FYI in January 2010.

Doug Decker, owner of Cedar Valley Transit Lines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says the average age of his 17 drivers is 54.3. Most of the people who apply for the job are 45 or older, though he did recently hire a driver still in his 30s. "Reaction times change as we get older. An aging workforce is a concern of everyone. With the economy the way it is, people are working longer or coming out of retirement. We haven't focused directly on the age issue, but we continue with our skill training and measurement of our drivers."

Decker puts all of his drivers through an annual skills test. Small problems are addressed before they become larger ones, and the company will use ride-alongs to make sure drivers are performing well.

Attracting youth

Though most drivers come to his company with long driving histories, Feasel says he also sees an advantage in hiring the less experienced, whether young or old. "When you have other drivers who have all this experience, they may have habits that need to be retrained. I've been inclined to take a chance on those with less experience. They take constructive criticism to heart. We do know what we're doing, and our safety record speaks for itself."

Those motor coach operators that are looking to bring young blood into their driving team may actually have a hidden advantage. Many are family operations, and it may be easiest to recruit from within. Decker says many of the younger employees in his company are family members — he himself came to the business at 40. "Part of the equation is being able to keep drivers interested in doing this. When I first went out, I'd be out on the road 240 days a year. I enjoyed driving thoroughly."

The FYI from MCI editorial staff values your feedback. Please e-mail any suggestions, comments, or ideas for future articles to fyi@mcicoach.com.

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