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Fit-to-drive?

by Ramesh Kumar

Posted on April 15, 2015 at 10:00 PM

Post Germanwings 9525 crash into the French Alps by 27-year old Andreas Lubitz a few days ago, there is a lot of discussion about the pilot’s mental makeup. Sort of pilot psychology. Was he flightworthy? Writing in the New York Times, former pilot Andrew McGee asks a pertinent question: “...it is time to take a more searching interest in the minds of those to whom we entrust our safety when we fly”. It is a standard operation procedure for pilots to undergo a pre-flight medical test before every single take off. Again, it seems to be checking the alcoholic check and not a psycho test.

Fit-to-drive?

The topic of “pilot psychology” suddenly triggered our conversation with forty plus Hoshiar Singh, a long haul truck driver we met at Chaudhry Dhaba on the Sonepat-Meerut Road recently. Long haul truck drivers are also pilots: the only difference being Lubitz types “drive” planes in air whereas Singh types “drive” trucks on roads. Long haul drivers undergo severe psychological turbulence on a daily basis. Says Singh: “Every morning when we wake up, our worry is how to cross the path during the day with so many RTOs and Traffic Inspectors waiting to bounce on us to extract “illegal gratification” (read bribe). Just not only that, there is another danger lurking in the form of pedestrians of villages and towns that we pass through who at the drop of a hat, would lynch us (truck drivers) at the slightest provocation. There are also the “flying rajas and ranees” on the tarmac who race and overtake us in their gaddis and hurl abuse at us just for the heck of it.” What a life!

There are millions of Singhs plying on Indian highways with undetected “psychological turbulence” always – therefore untreated - ferrying raw materials to manufacturing sites or finished products to marketshelves or Distribution Centres across the length and breadth of India. Billions worth of goods criss cross the arteries of India, driven by psychologically disturbed pilots on highways. Add to that the low esteem these soldiers on highways suffer from. Forget about curing their psychological turbulence. Even basic health check up is non-existence. Do they undergo any medical test pre-departure from well guarded factory gates or distribution centres? No.

However, the 3PL executives one presume check for vehicle fitness or road-worthiness of carriers at the time of loading before they exit the gates. Again, the security guards at gates conduct their document verification at their locales. Some 3PLs claim that drivers/pilots are briefed about load, route etc before they depart. But do they undergo any medical fitness test? Never. Is it necessary? Absolutely. So, it is not logically conclude that inanimate fleet and inanimate goods are rated highly than the blood-and-flesh long haul drivers. Sad, indeed.

Forget about drivers’ health check up. A majority of trucks exiting factory gates/distribution centres don’t have seat belt for drivers to wear. It is secondary whether drivers wear them or not- assuming they are in place. OEMs without exception have not made provision until recently. This basically means that millions of trucks plying on Indian roads have no seat belts. However, drivers tie a black belt to avert paying penalty to traffic police when they drive through city limits where they may be checked. Once out of the purview of police vigilance in cities, goodbye to seat belt and safety!

Returning to the topic of pre-departure health check ups, why it is important? Alcoholism and drugs are rampant among driving community and it is a safety hazard for all stakeholders: consignor, consignee, fleet owners, drivers and other road users. Given the poor driver rest room facilities outside factory gates/distribution centres with proper toilet and washroom amenities and decent sleeping provisioning, these hapless drivers sleep inside unventilated cabins or in unhygienic dhabas (roadside eateries) on the periphery of factory gates/distribution centres and eat not good food. They simply survive eating whatever they can afford and being served. When one eats such food, drink undistiled water, sleep in coir and poorly-made beds using dirty/unwashed linen, bedsheet or quilts, their bodies may not be in perfect condition to drive out with million rupees worth of goods.

Assuming that pre-departure medical health check up of drivers will be of utilitarian to business enterprises – because these items belong to them and transportation is the medium to ferry them out – the next pertinent question is: whose responsibility it is – OEMs (consignor, consignees), 3PLs, transporters, fleet owners, drivers? In a way, everyone’s. Let us examine closely. Drivers certainly because here we are talking about their health. Can they afford? They cannot. What about fleet owners? Most of them don’t hire drivers on salary basis but prefer to work on per trip or per km basis absolutely with no social security net. What about transporters – who with a small fleet size of their own, rope in small and medium truck owners of 1-20 vehicles under their umbrella – run their business? They don’t own up except profits. Light or zero asset business model is theirs. 3PLs? They can, but they don’t. All of them will point out to OEMs’ reluctance to handle this extra financial burden. Of course, pre-departure medical check up is not free of cost.

So that leaves OEMs or business enterprises – the Big Daddies: the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis, the Mahindras, the Jindals etc. on the private sector side from homegrown segment. Add the MNCs operating in India: Unilever, P&G, Colgate, Johnson & Johnson etc. . And the Big Daddies among PSUs: BHEL, Coal India, IOC, BPCL, HPCL, GAIL. All these Big Daddies have multilocational production or manufacturing sites and equally several distribution centres right across Indian landscape. These factory gates/distribution centres receive thousands of trucks/lorries bringing raw materials from far off and again take away finished or semi finished goods to market shelves daily. Therefore, it is absolutely possible for them to take care of this pre-departure health check ups of drivers at their expense. It’s not a charitable act, but ought to be an essential ingredient of their business operations. Primarily, a healthy driver means safe driving which automatically translates into less incidence of accidents on highways and it is also a way of their contribution to national development in terms of higher GDP. Less spend on post-accident medicare and no damage to raw materials or finished goods adds to the GDP kitty.

Throwing up their hands collectively declaring that they have outsourced transportation and therefore it is not their responsibility to look after the health of long haul drivers servicing them is unacceptable. Outsourcing does not mean abdication of responsibilities. Healthcare of drivers who help them “grow their business” directly or indirectly should be a priority. 3PLs can monitor this exercise on behalf of OEMs. Such a gesture also will assist build a better driver relationship environment between the service seeker (OEMs) and service providers (drivers). A healthy driver is good for all. This care or attention to this much neglected community will begin to reflect on corporate’s bottomline. Not on a quarter on quarter basis. But over a longer horizon. Ready, India Inc?


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