Truck Driver to Driving Instructor
The transformation that persons undergo when they sit behind the wheel of an automobile—or any vehicle for that matter—and becomes a motorist fascinates me. What are the forces and factors that motivate road users to act – whether predictably or unpredictably?
That day in the late-1990s I sat in an Ayr, ON truck stop with another driver passing time. We waited to be dispatched. At that juncture in my life, I’d worked as a long-haul truck truck driver for half a decade. The incessant truck traffic thundered by on the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway – or the 401 as everyone knew it. We sat in a booth and drank filtered coffee from worn white porcelain cups. The conversation turned to speed limits on the 401. The 800 kilometer 401 freeway runs east-to-west through southwestern Ontario from Windsor in the west to Bainsville in the east at the Ontario-Quebec border. It is claimed to be the busiest commercial highway in North America. My counterpart argued that the speed limit was 100 km/hr – which was the posted speed limit at that time.
I on the other hand argued that the speed limit was less than 120 km/hr. It was socially acceptable at the time; if drivers didn’t exceed 118 km/hr the likelihood of getting a speeding ticket was remote.
That heated discussion—unbeknownst to me at the time—struck at the very chord of my fascination with motorists and motoring. More so when the other driver asked me if people obeyed the law because they respect it, or because they fear it?
In my move to transition from long-haul truck driving in the late-1990s, I earned certification from the Ontario Safety League to become a commercial driving instructor. The move to work as a driving instructor however, was not linear. At that time in the province of Ontario, driver instructors were “licenced” to teach car drivers, but only “certified” to teach commercial vehicles. Although the basis of all driving, there wasn’t any Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) requirement for Ontario’s commercial driving instructors to undertake training in the fundamentals of teaching and driving. Not surprising, numerous driving schools rejected my application – lack of experience they stated. One could surmise that the industry rather than government authorities controlled the acceptable training level of driving instructors. In a bid to become more employable, I earned my Class ‘B’ licence (school bus). The MTO required that new school bus drivers take a “Defensive Driving Course.”
I thought to myself, “well, how hard can that be?”
I sat in the tiered classroom at Fanshawe College, London, Ontario on Saturday morning with a score of other students, awaiting the instructor’s arrival. The room murmured with quiet chatter. From the door at the left an elderly man strode into the classroom and promptly retrieved a piece of chalk. While scribbling on the blackboard he barked
“List the 4 road signs that warn drivers of obstacles and hazards on the roadway.”
Like most in the room, I was stumped. I simply couldn’t answer the question. When he told us the answer, he took the liberty to pontificate at length about the number of crashes that occurred in construction zones despite the plethora of black & orange signs and pylons.
Despite my arrogance and years as a long-haul truck driver I began to realize the depths and breadth of traffic safety. Oddly enough on that day, I also learned about pedagogy—the study of teaching—or more specifically, the instructor’s role of power OR empowerment. The ‘crusty ole’ bugger teaching the defensive driving course was certainly about the former.
In 1999, my job as a safety officer at a small flatdeck company in Ottawa, ON was made redundant – it’s a fancy way of saying I was “fired”. In light of the semantics however, self-help author Napoleon Hill wrote that “opportunity often comes in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat.” Through Ontario’s government sponsored employment program I enrolled in the course to earn my in-car driving instructor’s licence. At this course, I met Chris Daugherty. Chris was a big affable Irishman who wore a different belt buckle every day. He was the chief instructor on the Instructor Trainer Course and founded DTMS (Driver Training Motoring School) driving school.
Through Chris’ teaching, I was motivated. In a short space of time massive amounts of learning bombarded the instructor trainees. I worked hard to take on board the copious amounts of information, skills and abilities. Learning to drive is not just mental, but also kinesthetic. Muscle memory for bulk of students is the most difficult aspect of driving to change; especially if a driver has held a licence for years and then moves to earn a commercial licence. Of all the driving tests I’ve undergone over the years, Chris’ driving instructor practical tests stands out as one of the most challenging.
More important, Chris taught me about empowerment; the importance of getting to the learning objectives of a lesson. In other words, what are absolutely essential skills, abilities, and information that the student must know to be both successful in driving and on her road test?
In the spring of 2000, I returned to London, ON. There, my instructor’s licence earned me a job at the truck driving school – a place I’d previously been rejected owing to lack of experience. In the fall of that year, I returned to the University of Western Ontario to complete the 3 courses I needed to finish my Honors degree in English & Women’s Studies. I enrolled in 2 history courses to fill out the year; Canadian environmental historian George Warecki taught both. The university, the discipline of history, and Professor Warecki’s classroom provided a forum where I learned about questions, verifiable facts, and the interpretation of events. Here, I became a social historian interested in the historical actor and the motivating forces that cause people to act. More specifically, my fascination with traffic, the social interaction of people, and enforcement became my research project for the next half decade.
In that same year, I began working part-time at Parkwood Hospital as a driving instructor and rehabilitator. At Parkwood we taught people to drive vehicles with hand controls and offered techniques and skills that allowed drivers with disabilities to operate a motor-vehicle according to a set of acceptable guidelines. Here I formulated “social driving” and the futility of driver awareness programs.
One of my first clients at Parkwood was an inquisitive native Canadian named Jack – no doubt Anglicized. He was in a wheelchair; both legs had been amputated above the knee. During our driving lessons we shared stories of Canadian history. When I told Jack of J.R. Millers’ Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada, he proudly showed me the book on our next lesson. He informed me that he had heard most of the stories.
At the beginning of one of our driving lessons, I met Jack outside the secondary hospital doors. He wheeled along the sidewalk from the parking lot. He stopped in front of me and pointed back to his blue battered full-sized Chevy van parked there.
“I’m so glad I finally got these lessons,” he said, “I’ve been driving that thing with a broom stick for 2 years.”
In my time at Parkwood Hospital, I gained valuable insights into drivers with disabilities: drivers with one eye, limited vision, physical disabilities, brain injuries, dementia and the demise of driving ability as it relates to age and seniors.
In 2001 I graduated from Western with my undergraduate degree. Yet many traffic safety questions remained unanswered. The next year, I immigrated to Australia and attended the University of Melbourne – one of the country’s top universities. There, my questions about road users and public interaction took my research back to the beginning of the 19th century and the seminal years of the industrial revolution. Many of the ideas about road space, its use, and the laws that governed interaction in this public space had been forged in the days prior to the motor-vehicles’ arrival.
My doctoral thesis argued that the new motorized traffic brought about a revolution as road speeds increased 500% in the 40 years between 1890 & 1930; and in conjunction with other late-19th century social movements, police powers were significantly increased, thus extending their authority to all of society – not just the working class as it had been hitherto. What happened between 1890 & 1930 in most industrialized countries is comparable to saying that in 40 years from 2015, all traffic in cities will be driving at speeds of 250km/hr.
It’s simply an incomprehensible notion.
During my years in Australia, I drove highway coaches for Greyhound. According to the Australians, they founded Greyhound. I simply took this fact on speculation.
In March 2002 when I first applied as a Greyhound Coach Captain, I underwent a driving test as part of the application process. At this juncture, I had been in Australia for almost 3 months; I’d regained my truck licence and successfully completed the driving instructor course. I’d experienced and was familiar with driving on the left-hand side of the road. That, as it turned out however, was not my challenge.
The first highway coach on which I was tested was more-or-less an automatic – 'piece of cake'. The second was equipped with a synchromesh transmission that had an “air-over-electric” shifter. The connection between the transmission and the gear selector was electric, but to make the shifter feel like a “real shifter”, the engineers somehow used air pressure. That bus’ configuration turned out to be my nemesis for a period of some months. I simply couldn’t get it to move without warning bells and whistles signaling “imminent death.” During the road test, I stalled the bus 2 or 3 times. To say the least it was an embarrassing experience. Fortunately, Alex—the company's operation manager—didn’t see it as a barrier to employment.
During my training period the bus again bested me, worse yet however, I now had an audience. Craig my Greyhound trainers, couldn’t tell me either what I was doing wrong. Despite his inability to help me figure out the nemesis bus, Craig provided an insight into Australian culture and the “Aussie bloke.”
When I first met Craig, he indicated to me that he didn’t know why he’d been assigned as a trainer.
“Bit of a mystery,” he said.
He revealed a short time later that he was on his way out; he had plans for bigger and betters as he was going off to be a contract postie. Working for Australian Post, posties road mopeds up and down the footpath and delivered the mail to Melbourne residences.
Across the restaurant table at one of our meal breaks he asked, “Is your wife fat?”
“Um, no,” I muttered incredulous at the nature of the question.
“My wife is – she’s got an ass as big as a house!”
I smiled, simply not knowing the appropriate response.
A couple of years later, I was still working for the same employer, but doing the V-Line run part-time while attending university. The V-Line was the interurban bus line that connected the passenger rail between Melbourne and Ballarat and other towns in the state of Victoria. At the Melbourne station I ran into Craig working for the competition bus line.
I was just getting ready to depart when he saw me. He moved to the steps of my bus. We exchanged small talk.
“I thought you were off making your fortune as a postie?” I asked with a smile.
“Oh that,” he said as he turned to leave, “I gave that the ass!” He stepped off my bus and walked back to his.
After training I became a full-fledged coach captain, yet the nemesis bus continued its tyrannical reign. In Albury (pronounced Awbry), New South Wales—330 km northeast of Melbourne and is the state line between Victoria & New South Wales—I stalled the bus in the middle of a major intersection with 35 passengers sitting behind me. I knew I was doing something wrong, but the answer was more elusive than the proverbial Holy Grail. I continued to ask the other drivers at the depots, stations, and lodgings what I was doing wrong – none could give me insight into this damned devil bus.
After about ½ dozen trips in that bus, I figured out what I was doing wrong – simply by coincidence. My previous experience as a truck driver saw me driving vehicles equipped with non-synchromesh transmissions. When clutching on a non-synchromesh transmission, the clutch is depressed one-inch after the starting gear. For 5 years, I depressed the clutch one inch. Friends and partners would often sniggle when I stalled my personal vehicle saying something like, “Don’t you drive a truck?” I stalled the car because I depressed the clutch too little. Like the cars I some times stalled owing to incorrect clutch use, the nemesis bus too failed to work properly when I depressed the clutch only one inch. Quite by accident I discovered that I had to push the clutch all the way to the firewall or the incorrect clutching use would set off a litany of warning lights, bells and buzzers that chagrined me and discombobulated my passengers.
Years later when I returned to driving instruction, I was always reminded of that bus as I watched truck driving students struggle to push the clutch in one inch to shift a non-synchromesh transmission.
During my time driving on the left side of the road in Australia, I had one driving indiscretion. Driving a right-hand vehicle on the left-side of the road is not complicated… if there is other traffic to follow. The pedals are all in the same place; the only difference is that you work the gear selector with your left-hand, rather than the right. And depending whether the bus was an Australian or European model the windshield wipers and signal switch could be on opposite sides of the steering column. Always caused passengers pause when you went to activate the signal & the windshield wipers activated.
Parkes, NSW (700km north-northeast of Melbourne) was the mid-point for the Greyhound milk run between Melbourne, Victoria and Brisbane, Queensland. From Melbourne, we drove to Parkes and passed the bus to the Brisbane driver; Melbourne drivers than stayed overnight in a country motel with hewn boards nailed together for beds that had been painted deep brown. In the morning Melbourne drivers drove the southbound bus back, leaving at 5:15am. In the winter (June, July, August) it was dark when the bus departed across the New South Wales' outback. As well, there was little, if any, traffic on the two-lane Newell highway.
I arrived at the service station early – 4.10am. I chatted with the staff and went in the kitchen and made my breakfast – filtered coffee, an omelet and whole meal toast. On a previous trip to Parkes, Sally—a plump brunette–said,
“I hate making those omelets. Every time you come in here you order one of those omelets.”
“But they’re so good,” I responded.
“Well, you know how work a stove?” she smiled.
From that time on, I made my own breakfast. After preparing my breakfast, I sat at the plastic table with plastic chairs cemented into the floor. I looked out into the dark past the fuel pumps. Some of the town’s light punctuated the night’s tapestry. The Brisbane bus arrived just after 4.45am. It pulled in and stopped at the fuel pumps. A few sleepy passengers alighted, walked around the front of the bus, and straggled into the service station. I finished my toast, swallowed the last mouthfull of coffee, and went out. I greeted the other driver as he collected his bag. He muttered something about being tired and walked off across the highway and into the dark toward the motel.
I checked the freight, fuelled the bus, and did a head count of the passengers. The bus departed on time. I drove around the back of the service station and exited via the alley to the highway. As I did so, I announced the time for the meal break in Finley, and our arrival in Melbourne. I also made a brief mention of seat belts and some of the bus’ safety features.
I turned left out of the service station and drove into the right hand lane and proceeded down the highway. It was something I did out of habit. As bus travelled past the town’s periphery, I proceeded down the black highway. In the distance I saw a truck’s lights. At night you can see for miles across the outback. At 100km/hr I continued south; yet was slightly concerned as the highway straightened. The bus came onto a straight line course with a northbound lorry.
I remember thinking, “what is that truck doing?”
The bus careened forward down the dark Australian highway. The gap between my bus and the truck narrowed to a few kilometres.
“That truck is on the wrong side of the road”, I hissed to myself.
“What the heck is he doing?” I said under my breath.
As the distance between myself and the other driver closed to less than 2 kilometres I came to the shocking realization that it was me, and not the truck driver that was on the wrong side of the road. I wheeled the bus over to the left side of the road. Moments later the huge lorry hauling two trailers thundered past on the narrow two-lane highway. None of the passengers approached me and I hoped my indiscretion would pass unnoticed.
Later at the meal break in Finley, two young male passengers approached and asked, “Were you driving on the wrong side of the road this morning?”
“No, I was on the right side of the road…I just had to move over to the correct side”, I said with more confidence than I felt.
“You scared the shit out of us mate,” they exclaimed in unison.
“Not as much as I scared myself,” I replied.
Later, on other bus trips when I made announcements on the PA system and passengers heard Canadian accent, they would yell jokingly: “Make sure you drive on the right side of the road.”
I would always reply:
“You don’t want me to drive on the right side, you want me to drive on the correct side of the road!”
British Columbia, Canada
In March 2006, I graduated with my doctorate degree from the University of Melbourne. Shortly thereafter, I earned a contract teaching position at the University of British Columbia, at their Okanagan campus in Kelowna. In August, I returned to Canada under a dark cloud. My teenaged niece had been killed in a car crash. Before heading West, I returned to my family in Ontario. There we bid fair well to one of our family’s most gregarious souls.
For the first time I lived in Canada’s most Western province. And for the 2-years between 2006-8, the economy boomed and housing pricing soared across North America. So consumed by my new profession and teaching position, I remember little of that time. Teaching and researching a new book demanded the bulk of my attention, energies, and resources. In 2008, with the collapse of the United States’ housing market, the university teaching contracts waned. I returned to driver education. Truck driving schools thrive during periods of economic downturn.
Despite the fact that I had been a licenced driving instructor in Ontario, and had earned my certification in Australia, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) set a high standard for someone to challenge the driving instructor licence. I was presented with a battery of both knowledge and practical tests.
As part of the criteria, I had to pass:
- the ICBC Class 1-5, and air brakes’ knowledge tests;
- Division 27, which governs both driving instructors and schools in the province;
- teaching methods, pedagogy, and lesson planning were part of the required knowledge base;
- 2 in-class demonstrations and 2 in-vehicle demonstrations that included a lesson on pre-trip inspection—which was timed;
- Class 1 mock in-vehicle lesson with a student.
After completing the final component of the tests – the mock Class 1 lesson with a student that was supposedly having challenges with his left turns, I met ICBC officials at a coffee shop for a debrief. When I entered, Brian and Mike were seated at a table. I overheard them talking about how they’d earned their commercial licences.
"Did you ever drive after you got your Class 1 licence?" Mike asked Brian.
“No…drove a friend's truck a couple of times. You?” Brian asked.
“Nope, went back and sat behind a desk.” Mike replied.
When I sat down, the two finished their conversation before turning to me. Brian congratulated Mike on having the lesser amount of driving experience. During the debrief, I was criticized for my pre-trip inspection lesson being too short. I explained that two of the three mock students were employees of the driving school that had helped me out to challenge the driving instructor ticket. After 2 students had done their portion of the pre-trip inspection, I stopped the lesson short by 10 minutes, owing to the fact that I was confident that I had demonstrated the teaching skills, which they wanted to see. As well, one of the mock students was a driving instructor; he saw his student role as an opportunity to show ICBC officials all the aspects of the training with which he disagreed – needless to say there was a bit of tension. Despite my explanation, I was demerited for cutting the lesson short. The two also confirmed why I had stopped talking at the end of the Class 1 in-truck lesson.
My lessons follow a simple structure:
1) I teach and demonstrate the objectives of the lesson to the student;
2) I then let her practice and give some pointers on how improve – during any given 60-minute lesson the first 2 portions can take 30-40 minutes
3) The last portion of the lesson is assigned to the student practicing – at that point I say little. There isn’t much point, owing to the fact that both the vehicle and other traffic are often telling her what she’s doing wrong.
Most of the feedback was positive, despite some with which I disagreed. In 2011, I earned a contract to work at the ICBC licencing policy office; this section worked closely with the driver training unit. There I discovered that I had been the first and only person to ever successfully challenge the Driver Instructor’s Licence in the province of British Columbia.
In 2010, my family and I moved to Vancouver Island. There I worked sporadically for the University of Victoria and than full-time for one of the island’s driving schools. At the Complete School of Transport Training, I had the opportunity to learn about web building, design, and social media. As well, I created and wrote curriculum for the BC Instructor Trainer Course, which earned the school authority to train driving instructors.
During my time on Vancouver Island, I formulated and founded the idea for Smart Drive Test. This website combines my skills as a teacher, a driving instructor, and web designer. It is here that I work to provide the ultimate e-learning experience for those earning their licence for the first time or for those working to upgrade to a commercial licence.
In retrospect, my research revealed that the speed limit on the #401 highway has seen both myself and the other truck driver being correct. Researchers have determined that there are 3 definitions:
1) Faster than the posted speed limit;
2) Faster than me;
3) Faster than the “flow of traffic.”
And to these definitions I have added a fourth:
4) Faster than the “conditions of the roadway” allow.
Do motorists obey the law because they respect it or because they fear it? The simple answer is neither: driving is a social exercise, and motorists—most of the time—work within the parameters of motoring’s social framework to “get along.” After getting a driver’s licence most see road rules as just guidelines, and getting a traffic violation as an unfortunate incident. Rolling through stops signs, speeding (within limits), and “charging” yellow lights are only some of the acceptable behaviours. In the beginning pages of my dissertation it is written:
“You show me a traffic road-rule and I will show you road-user deviance.”
In the beginning of the twentieth century, traffic became society’s most criminalized activity. Before the 1950s, Nigel Walker stated that 2 out of 3 court cases involved traffic crimes. I once believed that driver education would solve all traffic’s problems. I no longer hold that conviction. In the 20th century, car crashes killed injured, and maimed more people than soldiers sent to war in that century. Since the late-1960s:
- better roads (multi-lane highways & freeways);
- better automotive technologies;
- widespread use of seat-belts and children’s car seats;
- medical advances—mostly as a result of the Vietnam War;
- the rural-to-urban shift in our population (the majority of collisions now occur at lower speeds);
have stemmed the tide of automotive fatalities. The best-kept secret in traffic safety is that since their zenith in the late-1960s, the high number of collisions and injuries has remained relatively unchanged.
I am now of the conviction that only technology will stem the bloody flow of traffic crashes. And I say, “Bring on the driver-less car.”
The difference between a coach and a bus is that a highway coach is equipped with a toilet. Therefore a coach captain is a bus driver that sits on a bus all day and takes crap!