For a fleet manager regularly sending drivers on to farms, construction sites and forestry tracks, there are a number of issues to address. If one of your drivers rolls a vehicle, it could result in payouts of thousands of pounds in damage and personal injury claims.
That may be a worst-case scenario, but there are also issues of damage to land and, more often, damage to the vehicle that should be looked into as well. And at a time when there are plenty of people trying to turn the tide of public opinion against 4x4 use, professional users who have to go off-road in the course of their work need to promote a positive image.
So how do firms ensure their drivers are competent to take vehicles off-road? Simply by training them and assessing their abilities in safe, controlled surroundings. With that in mind, in January 2004, the National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) created an off-road course covering risk assessments, safe driving techniques, winching and vehicle recovery and a look at the environmental and social considerations involved in off-roading.
This is not a course designed for the general public, although all 4x4 owners are welcome to enrol.
The training day, which includes modules that can be used towards an NVQ2 qualification, covers the basics needed for off-road competence. It is followed on a second day by a two-hour assessment by a qualified trainer.
Jeep has been putting its sales, service and marketing staff through the course at a training and assessment centre in Powys, Wales, run by off-road location specialist Wildtrackers. Fleet NewsNet took part to try to pass the course. Turning up in a fleet of prepared Jeeps, all equipped with mud-terrain tyres and CB radios, we met up with our instructors as the first snow of the day was starting to fall.
Andrew Dacy and Andy Lewis are exactly the type of larger-than-life jovial off-roading Welshmen you would expect. Dacy has competed in, and ended up co-ordinating, the Camel Trophy competition in far-flung corners of the world. He is also the NPTC’s national verifier, the man who assesses the assessors, so we were certainly getting the best possible training.
Lewis is a professional arborist and skilled off-roader, as handy with a chainsaw as with his trusty Land Cruiser.
We doubled up in the Jeeps for the first climb into the hills, only to be confronted by a fallen tree across the road. While Dacy attached the winch to the tree trunk, Lewis was donning safety gear and firing up the saw.
Dacy climbed into the Jeep Cherokee with me and we spent the morning traversing humps and ditches, tackling steep hill climbs and descents.
You soon learn that you need to tackle a ditch or a hump in the track at around 45 degrees, to try to keep three wheels on the ground and maintain forward motion. Our Jeeps were not fitted with additional traction aids, such as diff locks, so it was important to keep at least three wheels gripping to prevent an axle simply spinning away the engine power.
IDENTIFY THE RISKS
BEFORE even venturing off-road, drivers should assess the risks involved. That means identifying and, where possible, eliminating hazards.
Where it is not possible to get rid of the hazard, you have to look at ways to work around it, clearly identifying the risks involved and listing emergency procedures in case they are needed.
That can involve simple things like having the number of the local accident and emergency room, or more complex factors such as knowing exactly where you are.
If you are off-road, the chances are that any emergency services will have to come off-road too, either in their own 4x4s or by air ambulance. To do that, they need to know what your location is, so have the six figure grid reference that you are working in to hand. You never know when you might need it.
JEEP had disconnected the electrical cut-out that normally prevents you starting one of its cars without having your foot on the clutch. The reason soon became clear when Dacy pointed us up an impossible climb. Sure enough we came to a halt, and had the engine not stalled on its own he would have asked us to turn it off.
The technique to recover the vehicle calls for reverse gear to be engaged before restarting the engine. Then, with a foot on the brake, but not on the clutch, you start the engine and release the brake pedal. The engine starts and you are already driving in reverse gear down the hill. It’s all about being in control, rather than just whizzing down the hill backwards at the behest of gravity.
Another way to achieve the same result is to realise that you are not going to make the climb in forward gears and, before the engine stops, shift the gearlever across into reverse before it heads backwards. This takes a bit of practice and slightly less mechanical sympathy.
WINCHING? LET THE CAR TAKE THE STRAIN
WITH the driving completed, it was back to the bottom of the hill to try our hands at winching. Dacy went through the various hooks, lines, winches and straps that are available, pointing out breaking strains, safe working loads and test procedures.
We then worked in pairs to move an object blocking the track and to recover the vehicle from a bogged situation.
Not everyone will come into contact with winches in their daily work, and in fact you can choose to leave the winching module out, but it is useful information and you never know when you’re going to get stuck.
With the driving and winching completed we retired to the relative warmth of the wooded area at the base of the hills to go through daily pre-use checks of the vehicle.
It’s not just a quick dip of the oil for off-roading. You need to look at tyre pressures, adjusting them to suit the ground conditions. Tyre condition is also important, checking the inside side walls as well as the more accessible outer walls for damage.
IN A DOWNHILL SLIDE? THEN ACCELERATE!
ON steep descents it is possible for the car to run away with you, even in first gear of the low ratio box.
The technique here is to accelerate ahead of the slide, get the vehicle back under control and then slow it down again. When you are sliding rapidly down a snow-covered mountain, the last thing on your mind is accelerating. But it works.
Of course every gem of seemingly illogical technique that Dacy and Lewis have to impart works. That’s the point after all.
NOW FOR THE TEST
WITH all of that information buzzing around our heads it was off to the hotel to revise over a well-deserved pint.
You might think revision unnecessary. Surely everyone passes, right? Well no, actually. Just a week before our course, a major utility company had sent a number of its drivers along for an assessment.
They had all been driving off-road for some years, so decided not to undergo further training. Every one of them failed or, in NPTC-speak, were deemed to be ‘not yet competent’.
The following morning, with the snow still swirling around the car park, Lewis started my assessment. The pre-use checks went okay, though I had to work hard to recall all the risk assessment answers. On to the hills. The snow had stopped, but the terrain was frozen solid and far more slippery than the day before. We opted to drop tyre pressures slightly to maximise grip.
The driving went well, with no marks lost and pride very much intact.
It was to take a slight knock on the winching exercise though, as I occasionally let the winch cable run through my gloved hands while respooling the winch, rather than feeding it through hand by hand.
Still, two marks lost in total over the two hours was a satisfying finish to the course. I am deemed to be competent and I look forward to the arrival of my certificate and card.
Where to go for off-road training
THERE are a further 14 training centres around the UK capable of awarding the NPTC certificate, with 18 assessors in total, and fleets can take the test in their vehicles or in one supplied.
Fleets can even do it in their own working environment, as long it includes all of the necessary terrain. The assessment day will cost £180-£200 per candidate and Wildtrackers charges a further £250 to train two people for the day.
However, it is worth remembering that most training is tax deductible and in some areas you can get a European Objective One refund on training expenses.
It could also reduce insurance premiums, and indeed in some sectors it may be hard to get insurance without some form of qualification for drivers.
Should drivers need to, they can also go further with their training, getting deeper into vehicle recovery, winching and specialist off-road driving.
The National Proficiency Tests Council originated from within the Young Farmers’ Club movement, as a way to encourage and recognise skills among agricultural workers.
Today, NPTC offers a full range of National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications NVQ/SVQ) for land-based and related industries. NPTC is part of the City & Guilds Group.