Going through the drills at the UPS boot camp for tractor-trailer driving
It’s been a very long time since my boot camp days, and all I can recall of that time is running sprints, doing push-ups, struggling over obstacle courses and bearing the brunt of instructors getting in my face bellowing commands. So when I got the call to report to UPS Feeder Driver Training School (DTS), a boot camp of sorts for truckers, I was anxious.
Having been issued a set of “browns,” the UPS uniform, I packed my bags and headed off to the DTS in South Holland, Ill. The school opened more than 25 years ago to teach management driver-trainers how to train tractor-trailer drivers.
UPS is the world’s largest package delivery service and the tractor-trailer, or “feeder” division, is a key component in its operation. UPS’ tractor-trailers run between the hubs and operation centers “feeding” each with packages and documents. It has an accident ratio of 0.5 accidents per million miles driven. The industry average is 2.5 accidents per million miles driven.
Taking part in a class at the UPS Feeder Driver Training School would enable me to see, firsthand, just how the operation achieves its outstanding safety record.
Leader of the Tomocracy
Arriving at the UPS Leadership Center at about 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, I saw an imposing figure with a ramrod straight posture, in browns. He was a tall man with a flat-top-type military haircut. He obviously worked out with weights.
“Tom Brokop?” I asked. He turned, glared at me and, in a commanding voice, said, “Yes. And who might you be?” I had been told Brokop, who runs the DTS, is a no-nonsense leader who demands 100 percent plus from his students. In his school, excuses are not tolerated and full accountability is demanded. Forget about democracy, I was told. At DTS, there is only Tomocracy.
I could feel the nervousness start through me as my mind raced back to my military boot camp days.
Brokop started with UPS in 1982 as a package car driver and has worked his way through the ranks. A 1992 graduate of DTS, he took charge of the school in 2005. His students are an elite group, selected from within the UPS feeder operation, to attend the school and then go on to train UPS drivers. Of these chosen few, only about half leave qualifying as certified feeder driver trainers.
Three instructors, known at DTS as facilitators, are on hand eight times a year to guide a dozen students through the driver-trainer program. Scott LaRoche from the Southern California district of UPS, Jeff Orzel from Michigan and Rich Pacheco from the Metro Philadelphia region are this year’s facilitators, keeping up an intense pace for their trainees for three solid weeks.
“Safety is the number one focus at UPS, and we are relentless about it,” Brokop said, as we sat in his office. “We teach attendees to train our tractor-trailer drivers the UPS way. We do it with hands-on, on-the-road training because that is the most effective method. You’ll see what it’s all about tomorrow when you take part in the training.”
It was then that I noticed on his credenza a large rubber mallet with “Tomocracy” stenciled onto the handle. My enthusiasm about participating began to wane.
Class in session
It was already evening by the time I stepped into a classroom. Eleven students listened intently as LaRoche reviewed the pre-trip inspections each had completed that day.
They had to conduct the pre-trip in the proper sequence, including positioning the dolly and coupling the two trailers. “They have to explain what they are doing while they are doing it, and they have to do it in 45 minutes or less,” Brokop explained.
Students are allowed only 12 missed explanations and 12 incorrect demonstrations out of the nearly 300 pre-trip steps.
I tried to calculate how many steps are in my pre-trip habit for a tandem tractor and 53-foot dry freight trailer. Forty-five minutes seemed an impossibility for a doubles rig.
Students were asked to evaluate their work and then got grilled about whether they had met the daily goals they had set for themselves. I could feel the students’ pain and sense the pressure they were under. The facilitators nicely, but forcefully, “helped” the students see what they were doing improperly. “If they don’t understand what they are or aren’t doing, they can’t make the necessary changes,” said Pacheco.
Before the class finally broke for the evening at 9:30 p.m., Brokop called for some “positives.” Each day ends with this moment of acknowledging what has been and will be achieved, to keep the students motivated and in the right frame of mind for the next grueling day.
Class was dismissed, scheduled to reconvene at 8 a.m.
Returning at 11:30 p.m. from dinner with Brokop and the three facilitators, I noticed people around the school’s rigs with flashlights. “Those guys servicing the equipment so it’ll be ready for tomorrow?” I asked. “No, that’s just some of the students practicing their pre-trips,” answered Pacheco. “It’s a pretty common occurrence around here.”
The Circle of Honor
LaRoche began the next day’s session with a discussion on safety. As Orzel was about to go over UPS Form U6356, Brokop stood up and shouted: “Circle of Honor.” Without hesitation, the students moved to the center of the room and formed a circle, facing outward. One said, “aim,” the next said “high,” the next “in,” and they continued around the circle reciting UPS’ safety guidelines, the Five Seeing Habits, word by word. If a student hesitated or said the wrong word, he had to sit down.
“The exercise helps drive home the fundamental of space and visibility around a vehicle,” said Brokop. “If you have enough space and visibility you can avoid accidents.”
But reciting these principles of safety is just one part of the process. They were about to go out on the road without an instructor for the first time. Two to a truck, one would drive; the other would play the role of trainer. The course is set up so that students experience just about every type of driving and turning situation that would be found anywhere in the U.S. “This is the part of the program that gives me gray hairs,” allowed Brokop.
The facilitators follow the students in cars or park at specific locations to observe how they are doing. Occasionally, the facilitators videotape the students in action and use this to review their performance.
The class broke and the students headed outside for their pre-trips. Watching the teams was like watching ballroom dancers in double time. Trying to get everything done in under 45 minutes, the student doing the pre-trip quickly moved along, explaining and demonstrating each step, while the student acting as the trainer followed along intently watching, listening and grading.
Behind the wheel
The next day, after the students took to the road, Brokop and I climbed into a doubles rig, with me riding shotgun. He was taking me out to demonstrate the fundamentals of DTS’ Space and Visibility training, acting as the student.
As the student drives, he has to explain the skills he is using and demonstrate how he uses each one and what it does for him. In addition, the student has to summarize the skill with a key phrase. This is the part of the 10-Point Commentary Checklist, which covers various aspects of driving, including: starting up at an intersection, following distance, stopped in traffic, defensive driving, traffic signals, eye contact, pulling from a curb and use of mirrors and gauges.
Brokop provided an example of the 10-Point Commentary Checklist using rule number three from the Five Seeing Habits, “Keep your eyes moving.” As the traffic signal changed and he began to move the rig forward he began his narration:
“How to do it: Starting up at intersections look left, right, then back to the left. Look left and right first, looking for any motorists or pedestrians not obeying their traffic sign or signal. Look left the second time because that’s the first lane of traffic I’m going to enter. Prior to entering the intersection I check my traffic side mirror looking for traffic in the lane next to my vehicle that may turn in front of me. As I proceed through the intersection I check my opposite traffic side mirror to ensure I cleared the intersection of any hazards.”
He wrapped up, “What it does for the driver: Keeps you alive at intersections. Key phrase to remember: Scan — don’t stare.”
After finishing the on-road course, which is about 22 miles long with numerous left and right turns, Brokop pulled the doubles rig to a safe stop, parked, turned to me and asked: “Want to give it a try?”
Realizing that I was in no way prepared, I figured I’d get out of embarrassing myself by rationalizing: “I’d really like to but, it’s been about 20 years since I last drove doubles regularly.”
“Not a problem,” Brokop replied calmly. “You’ll be fine. Now let’s switch seats.”
The big test
I couldn’t even think about the Space and Visibility rules, never mind try and reel them off. I was way too busy attempting to drive the UPS way under the ever-watchful eyes of Brokop. As I made my first turn, he informed me that UPS requires driver to use shuffle steering rather than the hand-over-hand technique I had been taught. (Great. Something else to worry about — trying to break a long-time habit.)
“Careful in the turns,” warned Brokop. “If you hit a curb or run one over, that’s a disqualification.” (Additional stress.)
As I drove along, Brokop suddenly pushed himself high off his seat. “Nothing to be alarmed about,” he reassured me. “There’s a very large bump in the road just ahead.” I immediately slowed down. “You need to be paying better attention,” he scolded me. Brokop, like the three facilitators, knows every inch of the road course by heart.
Following his specific orders, and using my powers of concentration, I am proud to say I had no DQs (what the students call disqualifications).
Even though my time at DTS was just a small window looking into what goes on there, one thing stands out. Safe driving is at the heart of the company’s business and culture. The estimated cost of sending a student through the Feeder Driver Training School is around $50,000. Despite the down economy, UPS has not slowed down its investment in driver training. The company understands the very worthwhile return on the investment.
UPS’ Five Seeing Habits
• Aim high in steering – Look as far down the road as possible to uncover important traffic information to make appropriate decisions.
• Get the big picture – Maintain the proper following distance so you can comfortably determine the true hazards around your vehicle. Don’t tailgate others.
• Keep your eyes moving – Scan – don’t stare. Constantly shift your eyes while driving. Active eyes keep up with changing traffic conditions.
• Leave yourself an out – Be prepared. Surround your vehicle with space in front and at least on one side to escape conflict.
• Make sure they see you – Communicate in traffic with your horn, lights and signals to establish eye contact with motorists and pedestrians. Be reasonably sure of people’s intentions.
UPS Tractor-Trailer Training
• 80 hours of classroom and on-road training before operating equipment
• Master the Smith System, Five Seeing Habits, 300-step pre-trip, 10-point Commentary Checklist and Drill Drive
• International, Mack Trucks and Sterling Trucks model two-axle trailers
• 425 to 250 horsepower
• 9- or 10-speed Eaton Fuller
• Governed at 65 mph
• 28-foot single, double and triple trailers
• 48- and 53-foot van trailers
• UPS owns approximately 12,000 tractors and some 72,000 trailers.