If we want to reduce road carnage by the same magnitude as we have work deaths and injuries at work, we must start to regard driving for work in the same way, says John Davidge

FORTY years ago in the UK around 650 people died in the workplace every year. Last year just 142 people died at work. That’s still 142 too many but it’s a huge improvement.

Injuries have correspondingly dropped from 336,700 a year in 1975 to fewer than 75,000 reported injuries in 2014. It’s not a coincidence that health and safety laws came into effect in 1975, which is why we have reliable stats and another big reduction. It’s accepted that not all incidents are reported but that was also the case forty years ago.

Let’s look now at how these statistics compare with life and death on British roads.

In 1974 there were 6883 British road deaths and 330,000 injuries of all severities. That’s ten times more road deaths than workplace deaths. The numbers of injuries were similar.

In 2014, 1775 people died on the road in the UK and 195,000 were injured. We are rightly proud of our falling rate for deaths but the number of injuries is not falling nearly as fast. Inevitably, we will be examining this slower reduction at some point and there will be theories to explain it.

It is estimated that around a third of road incidents involve somebody at work. We now typically expect that having somebody seriously injured in the workplace leads to an investigation and increasingly to a prosecution. The fear of such prosecution has stimulated many smart employers to act proactively. The need to meet certain standards in order to demonstrate certain safety compliance levels in order to be eligible for some tenders has also led to companies improving their performance.

Most health and safety professionals are used to lawyers stating over the years, that people will go to prison if they do not comply with health and safety legislation. But in the first 35 years that the Health and Safety at Work Act was in force, only 11 people were ever imprisoned for breach of the Act or regulations made under it.

But the number of people being imprisoned for health and safety offences has gone up from 11 in first 35 years to more than 140 in last seven. It looks like the need for prosecution as a stimulant is being recognised.

On the road many people still see a collision as just a simple accident or maybe an act of god. Accidents will happen; it’s just one of those things. So have we got the mind-set right yet? I don’t think so and it’s not helped by the modern vehicle, which is a much safer place in which to crash.

Let’s go back to the idea that of all the drivers involved in a collision, 30 per cent of them will be at work when it happens. Police may investigate that incident, certainly if somebody is injured or killed, but the Health and Safety Executive will only take over that investigation and prosecute where the police have identified that there are serious management failures that have been a significant contributing factor in the accident itself. Should the management failure be so serious and involve a fatality then the police may well retain the matter to consider prosecution under the corporate manslaughter legislation.

Health and safety law applies to work activities on the road in the same way as it does to all other work activities. Businesses need to manage the risks to drivers as an integral part of their health and safety arrangements. It should not be forgotten that while health and safety law does not apply to people commuting (travelling between their home and their usual place of work) it will certainly apply if they are travelling from their home to somewhere which is not their usual workplace. Certainly it will apply if someone is able to claim travel expenses for using their own vehicle. And, of course, it applies to those driving company vehicles.

For fatal accidents there is a police road death manual that investigators should follow. This includes a section on fleet management expectations. Such investigations are becoming more focused and in-depth in relation to the background circumstances. It encourages the police to take an active interest in an employer’s safety systems to manage occupational road risk as a matter of course. It includes vehicle maintenance, phone records and driver hours. This applies whether it is a company vehicle or a vehicle being used by its owner under a reimbursement of expenses arrangement.

In truth, most collisions on the road are not an act of god or a chance happening, but a predictable sequence of events with logical outcomes. This is no different to many injury-causing incidents in the workplace. It is inevitable that eventually investigators will begin to realise the importance of analysing the detailed backgrounds; the fatigue and causes of it, the experience levels of drivers and other elements that all lead up to the event. It’s not just the driving behaviour and condition of the vehicle at the time. A whole picture of the approach to health and safety and culture within the employer’s organisation will be drawn up and scrutinised.

Suitable and sufficient risk assessments must be carried out in the same way as for other health and safety risks, to enable employers to take appropriate steps to deal with the problems they uncover. Policies and procedures should be in place to cover:

  • The vehicle. Its suitability, condition and available safety equipment.
  • The journey being made. This should include route scheduling, expectation of the time and distance that employees will travel and the risk of fatigue. Driver hours regulations and the use of tachographs only apply to larger vehicles on the road and considerable proportion of work-related journeys are not made in such vehicles, so this is an obvious area of interest.
  • The driver. Competency, fitness, health and training all need to be looked at.

Since 95 per cent of all incidents are totally or primarily driver-related it is inevitable that there will be some focus on everything to do with the driver and his preparation for the road trip (including the employer’s preparation of his employee). For example, it is not logical to expect a driver who passed a simple basic driving test in a small car driving around a quiet rural town, to be competent in piloting a large van around busy cities. Doing OK driving a Clio forwards round a test route bears no relationship to reversing a long wheelbase van in a busy industrial area and it should come as no surprise to realise that reversing a large van is a high-risk activity with predictable injury patterns.

Similarly, a driver used to the roads in highly-rural country like Latvia with low traffic levels is hardly likely to appreciate the finer points of the ‘magic roundabouts’ we have in UK. Domestic ‘local’ driving in a small family car covering less than 10,000 miles a year is very different to covering 30,000 miles annually with the inherent complacency, familiarity and time pressures that the eager-to-please businessman develops as habits. A pedestrian stepping out unexpectedly is perhaps primarily at fault but it is not difficult to perceive how the balance of cause may shift with the above situations and proper investigations will start to focus culpability in different areas.

All organisations with employees or consultants driving on their behalf must ask themselves whether they have done all that is reasonably practicable in regard to the levels of risk to employees in this area. Equally importantly, if they are ever under investigation following such a road death, could they demonstrate by adequate documentary evidence, that they have effectively managed all of their vehicle- related risks? If not, there is increasing risk of criminal liability as well as a civil claim for damages from those injured, which would inevitably follow. Our society is becoming increasingly litigious when opportunities present.

Every conscientious employer owes it to themselves and their trusted workforce not to invite such unwelcome scrutiny by taking the steps to prevent the incidents in the first place.

John Davidge is Head of Fleet Technical at Cardinus Risk Management. John served for 15 years as a police officer working on roads policing, where he saw the results of driving errors first-hand. He holds the National General Certificate from the National Examining Board in Occupational Safety and Health.

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