COVID-19 has affected the many ways in which we interact, including driver training. Even though we all hope to return to “normal” in the not-too-distant future, it’s likely that driver training adaptations will have to continue for the time being. This guest editorial by the Driver Education Centre (DEC) of the Justice Institute of BC (the Justice Institute) provides insights into how it changed its processes to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure, but still be able to safely offer in-person training.
The Justice Institute is Canada’s leading public safety educator, a public post-secondary institution that has earned a worldwide reputation for exceptional applied education, training and research. The Justice Institute administers and manages the Road Safety at Work program on behalf of WorkSafeBC.
Back in March 2020, like the rest of the world, the Justice Institute of BC (the Justice Institute) was significantly impacted by the sudden onset of a highly transmittable virus. It could be argued that the Justice Institute was even more affected than many other educational facilities because so much of the training we offer is applied and experiential. That means our training requires face-to-face interaction between students and faculty. The Justice Institute provides essential training since our core clientele are police and emergency services.
Our immediate reaction was to curtail in-person training and limit our educational activity to an online format. The Justice Institute’s Driver Education Centre (DEC) suspended in-person training for two months. During that time, we put pen to paper and began the process of conducting our risk assessments and developing mitigation plans to meet the pandemic-related Provincial Health Office and WorkSafeBC guidelines.
Shortly after we started this process, we connected with other police training agencies from across Canada and joined an unofficial emergency driving committee. We met virtually several times during the spring and summer to share ideas and brainstorm and since then have continued to exchange information through file sharing. We were all facing the same challenge of continuing our essential work, so it was extremely helpful to hear how others were conducting training.
The timing worked well because we had to reinstitute driver training as soon as possible. Since the Justice Institute is the only agency charged with driver training for municipal police and provincial sheriff recruits, we had to prevent any long-term or serious disruption to the flow of new graduates. After all, these graduates would be employed by agencies providing essential services.
New Controls and Procedures
Even in the last few months, DEC’s controls and procedures have evolved by trial and error or by virtue of updates or changes to the provincial guidelines and restrictions. For example, plastic glasses were originally supplied to students to protect their eyes. However, they tended to fog up or be difficult to see through when it was raining and created greater risk in the form of visual impairment.
We decreased class sizes by 50 percent and added 20 percent more training days (one extra day for every week of training) to ensure the curriculum wasn’t compromised. Teaching methods have been adjusted, including assigning one vehicle to students, decreasing instructor one-on-one time in the vehicle with students, and having instructors shadow students in a separate vehicle to observe and critique student technique.
Instructors still need to be in the vehicle to demonstrate maneuvers and for on-road driving assessments, but final assessments are now being conducted by instructors following students. Observing from outside the vehicle still allows instructors to check how students maintain vehicle control.
Students are also encouraged to be outside as much as possible to reduce the risk of exposure, particularly during the summer and fall when being outdoors was easier. During the winter, JIBC has provided extra outdoor seating and erected tents to shelter students outside.
Plexiglass barriers have been installed in Dodge Caravans that instructors and students need to spend more time in. The barrier is designed to be temporary, does not block the driver or passenger from exiting the vehicle, and can be easily pushed out of place if anyone from the from the front seat needs to exit from the back in the event of an emergency. These barriers were custom-built by a local company that began producing them during the pandemic and were fitted into vehicles without altering the vehicles themselves. The material was chosen because it doesn’t obstruct drivers’ vision, is adjustable to fit other types of vehicles, and meets WorkSafeBC guidelines for barriers2 and all applicable provincial regulations.
Classrooms have been configured to enable social distancing by placing desks at least two metres apart. Within the Justice Institute, arrows have been placed to designate one-way movement throughout the building and washrooms have a one person limit.
Personal Protective Equipment
Everyone at the Justice Institute is required to always wear a mask, whether in a classroom or in the building or when in a vehicle with another person. Hand sanitizer and wipe stations are placed strategically throughout campus, including outside and inside vehicles.
Due to the change of season and colder weather, vehicles are now being sanitized using isopropyl alcohol rather than wipes because the former dries much faster and leaves less residue. (Wipes were replaced because, in rainy conditions, students’ hands didn’t dry quickly enough, and they were unable to adequately grip steering wheels.)
Vehicles are wiped down after each use. Within the facility, cleaning staff have been deployed to clean frequently touched surfaces at least twice per day and to wipe down all common areas and surfaces at least once per day.
All students are required to complete an on-line COVID orientation. Along with instructors, they must also complete a daily health check. As required, instructors have cancelled teaching days if they have come into contact with others who have been infected or suspected of being infected.
Since June 2020, DEC’s 10 faculty members have trained almost 300 students3 with no COVID exposures. We attribute this to the safety protocols that the Justice Institute has implemented, but also to the personal responsibility that everyone has taken. Clients4, for example, have cancelled scheduled training as guidelines and restrictions have modified or when they perceive risks have been too great.
Although the number of organizations and people DEC typically trains have declined, our clients are beginning to return. We credit this to better understanding about COVID transmission, more information about addressing pandemic risks, recognition that despite the pandemic vital work must go on, and continued commitment to improving road safety by ensuring employees are formally and adequately trained.