Kitchen and joinery products supply giant Howdens is trialling an innovative driver training tool – EyeGym – in a bid to improve driver performance and safety.

The online visual, cognitive and decision-making training has been endorsed by many top sports people including England Rugby World Cup winning manager Sir Clive Woodward and F1 driver Valtteri Bottas as well as a number of insurance companies.

Gareth Sterland, head of transport at Howden Joinery, plans to introduce EyeGym for all his 290 long distance truck drivers in the UK, Ireland, and France in 2023, starting with 120 drivers at Howden’s large DCs including its national centre at Raunds plus another 170 based at 3PL sites.

Developed by leading South African sports scientist Dr Sherylle Calder, EyeGym treats the eyes and brain like any other muscle that will deteriorate and decline in performance without regular correct exercise – also as people age.

Calder also believes that excessive use of mobile phones, fatigue and complacency resulting from drivers doing the same routes can significantly reduce drivers’ effective observation and reaction time when an incident occurs. Decision making under pressure is also trained within the EyeGym system

“EyeGym trains the eyes and body to see and experience more,” she said. “Drivers have to/need to be more aware of what is happening around them.

“All drivers deal with a degree of visual and cognitive load and fatigue which affects perception and ability to make a quick decision and respond.”

Elite sports people often seem to have more time to react to situations and remember incidents with more clarity and detail that the average individual. Once trained drivers will also have the same ability

“They don’t have more time of course but they are able to take in information faster,” said Calder. “Top coaches are now moving from focusing on the physical aspects of sport to the cognitive.”

Bottas said of EyeGym: “I feel I have more time to react to situations. Faster and fitter eyes give you the edge.”

EyeGym is a software package that provides visual, brain and decision-making training designed to improve concentration, response times, coordination, peripheral awareness, scanning, and judgement amongst others. Each training session also produces a score for how well the trainee performed.

The driver will get an accuracy score as well as how quickly they can decide based on what they see.

“It most importantly trains drivers to cope with unexpected situations better,” said Calder. “It also counteracts the negative effects of smartphones on attention and judgement.”

There is growing evidence that regular use of a smartphone affects everyone’s perception of the world around us and reduces our ability to visually take in and use information.

“Phones are highly addictive and are affecting our eyes and brains in a negative way," warned Calder. "On a small screen our eyes don’t move much. People spend hours on these devices in a day so when you start driving you cannot expect your eyes to work effectively.

“The most important skill for a driver is to pick up information early. This is a trainable skill.”

Sterland started his trial of EyeGym with four drivers based at Raunds and himself. “One driver now has the same reaction times as an athlete,” he said. “I’ve got better and react quicker.”

Howden currently has 92 users signed up for EyeGym and the minimum training plan for the drivers is 30 minutes every 40 days as part of their working day. This training will be supplemented by individual sessions done in the drivers’ own time if their scores indicate further sessions would be an advantage. The more you train the better.

While EyeGym ironically can be used on a smartphone (however this is not for training but a one minute warm-up to prepare drivers) it works better on tablets, laptops or desktop PCs. Sterland knows that with drivers out of the road for most of their working day it will be difficult to get them to train regularly.

“Not everyone can do it every day,” he said. “We are setting up a training pod with computers in every one of our transport sites.

“We will be the first in the UK to do this because we want to be at the forefront of the industry. It is costing a significant sum but senior managers are very supportive.”