Rhonda Haun sits inside the cab of her U.S. Xpress truck tapping buttons on the display of her on-board computer while waiting for another pickup in a lot outside of Atlanta, Ga.
Soon Haun finds the program she's looking for, pops it up on the screen and intently follows the action. Judging from her fixed gaze one might assume this program is entertainment, but it's actually education at work. On this evening, Haun chose a safety lesson covering turns and maneuvers, brought directly to her "home on wheels" via a computer-based instructional training called Pro-TREAD.
Vancouver-based Instructional Technologies, Inc. designed the Pro-TREAD series of programs for the commercial trucking industry in 2000 and has provided over two million lessons to about 200 fleets of various sizes since hitting the market in 2001. U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Inc. is one of their larger clients, and the feedback has been positive.
"I don't see how someone couldn't benefit from using this program," Haun said. "It covers everything from health, all the way down to the mechanics of the truck itself."
Dr. James Voorhees, President and CEO of ITI, said he chose the commercial trucking industry after doing an extensive amount of research on it as related to safety programs. Through this research he noticed a number of deficiencies that could be addressed through computer-based instruction – in other words, an opportunity.
Safety is key in an industry that runs on a 2 to 3 percent profit margin. Voorhees said that a minor accident costing $25,000 generally costs over a million dollars in gross revenue for the company. Reducing that risk is a key factor to surviving in such a competitive industry.
"The critical part of any truck is the driver," Voorhees said. "It's unusual for a mechanical system on a truck to fail. It's usually a bad decision by a driver."
Another U.S. Express driver, Wiley Gribble, is an instructor in the company's new driver training program, and said Pro-TREAD is a great resource both as an instructor and a driver. Gribble said avoiding complacency as a driver is the primary variable in ensuring safe driving but pointed out that without proper training and education, drivers lack the proper skills to apply in tricky situations.
"In this business, safety is a priority," Gribble explains. "If it wasn't, equipment would get damaged or worse – people will get killed."
Thus, the Pro-TREAD curriculum began in 2001 as an alternative to safety videos and pamphlets. The idea was to create a more adaptable product for the companies – one that would allow on-demand capabilities, superior documenting for safety reports and updateable content. All three of these features pass cost savings on to the trucking company.
Another advantage with computer-based instruction relates directly to the user experience. While Pro-TREAD presents all of the same concepts, practices and statistics, it's done interactively through video, high-quality graphics and animation. In the trucking industry, this feature is essential in the effectiveness of any safety program.
"Truck drivers are visual, motor learners," Voorhees said. "You want to give them a visual thing and make it interactive – keep them engaged with the training the whole time."
In addition, every lesson has been designed as an adult learning, mastery-based course. This means that the lesson is divided into a series of one to three minute frames, each followed by a question referring to the main point(s) of that frame. If a driver answers correctly the lesson continues, but if a wrong answer is submitted then the viewer is forced to view the frame until a correct answer is applied.
"The good thing about these lessons is that it forces you to answer questions," Gribble said. "It's not like you can just turn it on and let it run – it's interactive and you have to be involved with it on many levels."
Reports support the effectiveness of computer-based programs as well. A 2007 study sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said, "early data indicate that well-designed computer-based instruction, including simulation, can improve student performance and also realize efficiencies in the instructional process." It further explains that distance computer-based learning is ideal for post-licensing training and greatly reduces training costs across the board.
This is why in 2005, ITI converted their 54-course curriculum into its current web-based design. Previously the series was recorded in video format, which made it nearly impossible to stream. Now, with software advances, including Flash, the new program is able to stream seamlessly. At the same time, the online environment has optimized the tasks of billing, documenting and updating.
Furthermore, the new version has allowed ITI to capitalize on another industry trend. In 2007 they partnered with DriverTech, an industry leader in on-board computer platforms which are gradually gaining market share and could be federally mandated by a transportation bill in 2010. This partnership established the ideal delivery system – in-cab, anytime and anywhere.
"We've been trying to get truck drivers in a position where we give them safety training while they're on the road.," Voorhees said. "Ideally, if they take a lesson, they're going to think about that lesson for the next three or four hours behind the wheel."
Pursuing this trend further, ITI has now established contracts with all four of the major in-cab platform companies allowing them to grow into the nation's largest provider of online training to the trucking industry. Voorhees attributes their success to the focused approach – which allows them to stay abreast of the latest industry practices –
and strategic partnerships.
"We continue to have new lessons and update the presentation style," he said. "One thing you hear about the software industry is that you have to adapt or die – it's always changing, and so are we."