As the lockdown continues to ease and furloughed employees return to work, more of us will resume driving for work and commuting. James Pomeroy considers the the indirect increase in road deaths due to people avoiding public transport during the pandemic.
With large groups of individuals not having driven significantly for many weeks and the road network scheduled to get busy, organisations should consider how the driving risks that their workers face may have changed as a result of the pandemic, and what measures they should take. This is important because for many businesses, driving is one of the most significant safety risks they face, and the rates of people killed or seriously injured on UK roads has increased in recent years.
Increased road users
With the government currently advising people to avoid public transport to enable social distancing, employees who typically use trains, tubes and buses to get to work may start driving for all or part of their journey. The increased road use could result in higher levels of congestion and air pollution, and potentially a rise in road accidents and fatalities.
Risk does not operate in a vacuum and the well-intentioned advice to avoid public transport, could have unintended consequences. For example, in the 12 months following 9/11, the understandable fear of flying led to a 20% decline in US airline passengers as many Americans opted to drive. The switch to roads resulted in an estimated 1,600 additional road deaths in the following year.
Given that surveys indicate that many UK workers are planning to follow the advice and avoid public transport, more people driving on busier roads may result in employees working longer days and increase levels of fatigue. Organisations should therefore consider the direct and indirect impact of such developments and how occupational road safety policies and fatigue management programmes may need to adapt.
Getting employees ready
Over the coming weeks, many employees who have been working from home for several months or on furlough will resume driving for work, while others will go back to their daily commute. This will see many employees getting back behind the wheel after several months of limited driving. Whether employees are driving for work or commuting, as they return to the workplace, many will need to re-learn many of the tacit skills, habits and behaviours that keep them safe behind the wheel. Organisations should consider providing refresher training and guidance on safe driving techniques within their return to work training, particularly for employees whose work involves driving. This could include inspecting and checking vehicles that may not have been used for many weeks.
A different type of driving experience
As workers get back behind the wheel, they may experience a different driving environment. To encourage social distancing, many local authorities are stepping-up their sustainability programmes and reallocating road space in cities to pedestrians and cyclists. This could mean narrower roads, higher rates of congestion and consequently longer and more stressful journeys.
The roads may also be busier as research indicates that many people with short commutes are looking to cycle or walk more. This is great news for sustainability and wellbeing, but could have implications for road safety, particularly given that over half the fatalities on UK road involve cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. This is not just an issue for those driving in the cities – it’s worth noting that nearly 60% of all road fatalities occur on rural roads. The combination of reduced road capacity and an increase in vulnerable road users could change the nature of the driving experience and the occupational road risk many organisations face.
A different kind of working day
Changes within the workplace and to working patterns may also indirectly impact driving safety. To maintain social distancing, employers are separating teams, and introducing staggered shifts and longer working days. The impact of working longer and more compressed working shifts could increase levels of fatigue, a well-known precursor to driving accidents.
The recent prosecution of Renown Consultants by the Office of Rail and Road is a timely reminder of the importance of fatigue management. The prosecution involved the tragic death of two contractors who died in a road accident that was attributed to inadequate rest periods. With studies indicating that sleep-related vehicle accidents account for a fifth of UK vehicle accidents and a quarter of fatal and serious accidents, the Renown case reminds us that an organisation’s obligation to manage rest periods and driving hours does not stop during a pandemic.
With the virus continuing to dominate the work of the OHS profession, it’s important that we do not overlook some of the more conventional risks such as driving, many of which present a significant risk to our workers and the public. It’s equally important that we allow for the implications of the changes that we are having to make in our workplaces so that they do not increase risks elsewhere within our organisations. As Newton’s Third Law advises, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
James Pomeroy is group health, safety, environment and security director at Lloyd's Register