The challenge: remember the risks behind the wheel

Driving awareness courses with police officers and lorry drivers

Text and photography: Daniel Martorell

“I understand that in your job you depend on the mobile phone. But we have to learn to say, ‘Call me in 10 minutes.’ That gives you time to find a safe spot, pull over and note down what you need to note down.” This is the answer provided by Xavier Álvarez, member of the Catalan Police Force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to one of the nine lorry drivers that, this Saturday morning, are in the training room of the transport firm they work for. Today, a workshop with the police. Two hours. Face to face. Without the stress of the road and breaking down the usual barrier that separates a traffic officer from a road haulage professional.

Both Xavier and his colleague, Joan López, are clear and to the point. No messing about. But the drivers can also have their say, preventing the session from turning into a police monologue. Xavier and Joan, are both at the workshop to help refresh those concepts that may have been forgotten — or parked in some hidden corner of people’s minds — not to drum rules and regulations into the drivers’ heads. Firstly, because transport pros already know perfectly well what they’re supposed to do; and secondly, because a paternalistic approach doesn’t work when it comes to reducing the number of road traffic accidents. “What we try to do is make it more personal, to raise self-awareness,” says Xavier. “We take advantage of this sector to reach the individual, their car, their day to day, and not only their professional life.”

Since 1998, the Catalan Police Traffic Division has gradually increased the number of training sessions held with different groups. Access for schools, colleges and companies in general is relatively simple: they just have to ask, schedule a time and date, then they’re set. Students and staff tend to be in the same building. But when it comes to haulage firms — since 2009, the priority target for the police — it’s a bit more difficult. These employees don’t often stop by the offices and, at times, the companies themselves are reluctant to let them out of their trucks and into a classroom for two, unproductive hours. The mossos currently deliver an average 500 sessions per year across a range of different sectors, but only 50 are exclusively for transport firms. Nevertheless, it seems that increased awareness of road-related dangers have made it easier over recent years to deliver these courses to professional lorry or coach drivers. Occupational Health and Safety departments have taken on greater importance, encouraging firms to back this kind of training.


Police and drivers, face to face

Like a frog and a scorpion — or petrol and a lighter, for that matter — a mix of police officers and drivers, a priori, doesn’t seem like a pleasant combination. The traffic police themselves admit that the workshops sometimes get underway with mistrust written across the faces of the haulage pros. “When they arrive and they see you there, two uniformed officers, the first impression isn’t always good. Because we might even have pulled them over sometimes on the road,” explains Vanessa Bohé, police corporal in the central traffic and road safety area of the Catalan Police Traffic Division. However, the drivers’ view tends to improve over the course. “As our objective in these workshops isn’t to criminalise or fine them, their perception changes. We try to create a closer working relationship in which they can tell us about their experiences behind the wheel, explain how they deal with things, and participate. I’ve never come across anyone who’s made a negative comment at the end of the session.”

It takes a few minutes for the atmosphere to mellow. Raised eyebrows. The occasional driver with an expression on their face that says: “OK, let’s see what these guys are gonna tell me.” But it’s also true that when the group dynamics kick into action and the ice starts to break, everything flows naturally, the barrier created by the uniforms starts to crumble, penalisers and penalised disappear and the really useful conversation gets underway. What happens when we lose the sense that we’re driving? What are the dangers of being tired or distracted at the wheel? In the police corporal’s opinion, few groups know better than road transport professionals the risk factors on the road. They’re the first to describe them. There’s no doubting their knowledge. “They drive thousands of kilometres per year. What are you going to teach them about driving?” reflects Bohé. “The thing is that, often, knowing the risk factor doesn’t prevent people making mistakes. You get used to travelling a set route, for example, and you stop paying attention to certain stimuli.”


“When they arrive and they see you there, two uniformed officers, the first impression isn’t always good. We might even have pulled them over sometimes on the road.”


And those are exactly the kinds of things — over familiarity, a blasé attitude, routine — that the police are keen to highlight. “We’re not showing them anything new, we just share a few tips that we believe are useful for them to stay switched on. We’re not here to explain technical regulations, but to remind them about things they might have forgotten or stopped doing, through force of habit.” The police officer Joan López underlines the same idea: “We always say that we’re not here to teach, we don’t teach anything. What we do is try to help people realise for themselves the importance of taking on board that when you’re driving, you have to concentrate only on driving. Nothing else.”

Obviously, when the floor is opened up for debate, conflicts arise. Inevitable differences of opinion that the officers delivering the course take as read. “It may be that, at a certain point during the session, a driver says, ‘the thing is that you people do this or that.’ And we might not agree. Of course. But the final goal is to reduce traffic accidents, make our roads as safe as possible, and cut the number of casualties. In that respect, there are no differences of opinion,” the police corporal states. Similarly, drivers’ participation, over time, has lead to changes in the design of the courses, improving the sessions. “They explain situations that you’d never have taken into account. You incorporate them and they serve to offer advice to others. And we tell people, ‘A colleague of yours told me this.’ Because if we only worked with the idea that, ‘I’m the police officer and I’ll tell you what to do,’ then we wouldn’t manage to get the message across.”

Through participation, practical examples, videos and photos, the officers aim to raise drivers’ awareness and help them to adopt habits that, in the long run, are much more important than straightforward knowledge of the rule book. And here’s a thing: these sessions are not just about improving awareness during working hours. One of the key aims is to remind professionals that the risks don’t disappear when they park up their lorry or coach. “We also use the training to refresh good driving habits in their daily lives, when they get into the car with their partners, their wives, their children. Sometimes, a driver will say, ‘I’ve only got two years left, then I’m retiring, I’m giving up the lorry.’ And you reply, ‘And your car? Are you giving that up too? And what about as a pedestrian?’ That’s the idea. To give more general kinds of tips.”

The thing is that, often, knowing the risk factor doesn’t prevent mistakes. You get used to travelling a set route, for example, and you stop paying attention to certain stimuli.

New times, raised awareness

To deliver the training, the only thing the police force asks of companies — aside from a space to hold the session — is that the drivers are available for at least two hours. This is the minimum time feasible for the group dynamics to work. Usually, the workshops focus on fatigue and distractions while driving, but they can also be tailored to meet specific requirements (for example, if there have been cases of alcoholism or drug use among staff) or adapted to the company’s main activity (the type of route their vehicles take).

When it comes to motorway driving, for instance, the courses emphasise how to deal with monotony and associated tiredness. “When a driver passes the same section of the AP-7 twenty times a week, let’s say, their conduct becomes automatic and they stop paying attention to certain stimuli,” explains Bohé. “Our objective is to try to provide some advice, guidelines and solutions to avoid falling victim to that fatigue.” Another risk faced on motorways and highlighted by transport professionals during the sessions is the attitude of regular motorists. Drivers explain, for example, that although they respect the safe following distances, it’s common for cars to cut in front of them, drastically reducing this space. Another example: cars that insist on always using the middle lane and, without realising, prevent heavy vehicles from overtaking each other (a lorry is not allowed to use the third lane). “They mention this a lot, which is exactly why we’ve included it in driving awareness training for car owners.”

If we only worked with the idea, ‘I’m the police officer and I’ll tell you what to do,’ then we wouldn’t manage to get the message across.

Professionals, motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists and even pedestrians… The objective of the police workshops, whichever group they’re aimed at, is to make us all more conscious of the risks of the road. Do they work? According to the Catalan Police, after years of effort, the results are positive. We now drive better and more aware of the dangers. This shift in attitude is evident across the board, not only among professionals. “Behind the wheel, people are becoming more and more safety conscious. The number of deaths and serious injuries has dropped and we’re starting to drive with an awareness of the risks that road use implies. Nowadays, for example, people will tell you that they wear a seat belt in case they have an accident. In the past, they used to say that it was to avoid a fine. There’s been a change in mentality.”


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