Prevention, not cure

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According to the recently released Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2015 report by the Department for Transport, the number of miles driven by all road user groups has risen by 1% compared to 2014. 

That may not sound a lot but when you realise it equates to an extra three billion per annum, that will inevitably have a significant impact on our roads. Interestingly, the major percentage growth has come from commercial vehicles with truck traffic seeing the largest year-on-year increase since the 1980s, growing by 3.7% in 2015 and van traffic continuing to grow more quickly than any other vehicle type, rising 4.2% over the same period and 70% higher than 20 years ago.

Many would than assume that the increased road usage and consequential greater numbers of interactions between vehicles, cyclist and pedestrians would increase the likelihood of accidents occurring. However, per mile travelled, the risk of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident has fallen almost every year from a peak of 165 deaths per billion vehicle miles (bvm) in 1949 to the lowest level of 5.6 deaths per bvm in 2013 and 5.7 in 2014. 

However, there are still almost 190,000 people killed or injured on UK roads every year. For fleet operators of commercial vehicles, accidents, involving casualities or not, are an everyday fact of life. 

The road safety group Brake also recently highlighted in a report that single carriageway roads are now seven times more risky than motorways.

So how do fleets attempt to negate this issue or, perhaps more importantly, how do they reduce the risk of accidents happening? 

One of the main areas of influence under every fleet managers control is the opportunity to train, educate and ultimately monitor driver behaviour as well as specifying certain safety systems at the point of purchasing a vehicle. 

In this feature, we shall be concentrating on driver behaviour but, first of all, we need to examine the causative factors.

What are the main reasons for accidents?

The main causes of accident are wide and varied, but it would appear most, but not all, but may potentially be broken down into the following categories:

  • Speed
  • Drink/drug driving
  • Distractions
  • Fatigue and sleep apnoea
  • Medical conditions such as deteriorating eyesight

Brake gives examples of driver distractions and tiredness:


Hands-free phones, like hand-held phones, impair driving by slowing reaction times and drivers are four times more likely to crash while using a hand-held or hands-free mobile phone. 

Adjusting gadgets such as CDs and sat-nav can be a dangerous distraction because the driver’s eyes and attention are away from the road. 

Even listening to loud music while driving can slow drivers’ reaction times when responding to hazards outside their direct line of vision.


Too little sleep radically affects the ability to drive safely. In fact, after five hours’ sleep you only have a one-in-ten chance of staying fully awake on a lengthy journey. 

Research estimates that 300 people are killed each year as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel and about 40% of tiredness-related crashes involve someone driving a commercial vehicle. Some people suffer with a medical condition called sleep apnoea, which can cause daytime sleepiness and falling asleep at the wheel, resulting in sufferers being about seven times more likely to have crashes.

Once we understand the key reasons we can then look at how to prevent them.

Prevention through driver behaviour

A report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK around 10 years ago entitled The contribution of individual factors to driving behaviour: Implications for managing work-related road safety concludes that influencing driver behaviour may be broken down into two main areas, although the issue could be addressed even before we reach these solutions by looking at the driver recruitment policy. 

(i) Driver behaviour training and evaluation starts at the recruitment phase

The HSE report finds that it is possible to recruit safer drivers by introducing personality profiling, pre-employment medical screening and licence checks. 

All these will have the potential to have a positive effect on the number of road incidents as well as suggest to professional transport companies this type of employment process should be at the heart of the standard employment procedure. 

Medical screening is another aid to accident prevention, not just at the recruitment stage but also as part of an ongoing process. 

A number of medical conditions were found to be associated with increased crash involvement, including visual impairment, habitual alcohol consumption, musculo-skeletal abnormalities, memory conditions and chronic illness. 

A formal medical screening programme would allow assessment of a driver’s fitness for work. 

Additionally, certain medications can increase drowsiness and therefore it is important to ensure drivers are aware when purchasing medication, or that they report taking prescribed medication. Specific illnesses have also been related to fatigue, which increases the risk of accidents. 

One of the key features to preventing accidents in the fleet is to ensure a professional and thorough driver assessment process is developed and, more importantly, adhered to. 

Obviously the theory is great but in times of driver shortages (and perhaps even greater driver shortages post-Brexit) there could possibly be
the temptation to ‘short-cut’ the system. 

But remember, there may be a greater cost in the long run.

According to RAC head of accident management operations Phil Webb, the breakdown service sees three areas of accident prevention based around passive, motivational and cognitive areas.

Passive – Look at the specification of the truck you are purchasing for safety features such as active cruise control, lane departure warning,
ESP etc. 

This also includes installing telematics and in-cab driver behaviour monitoring equipment, as as well as route planning and scheduling (see below). 

Motivational – Engage with the employee and the cultural environment set by the company, such as benchmarking driver style utilising the full breadth of telematics availability and incentivising good driver behaviour operated within an ‘open forum’.

Cognitive – This is a little more esoteric, in that it requires the driver to appreciate and take ownership of the wider consequences of an accident, no matter how small. 

In this area we are looking at the social and economic cost of the incident, taking into account such things as the inconvenience to commuters, time lost to all involved and environmental impact, which are often ignored or viewed as inconsequential compared to the accident itself.

Indeed, Rebecca Lancaster and Rachel Ward, the authors of the HSE report, highlighted the benefits of tailored training programmes, the role of stress management, employee awareness and involvement in procedure development, and shaping employee attitudes and safety culture.

(ii) Training and awareness of risks

There is evidence to suggest that perception of risk has a significant impact on accidents and therefore improving people’s perception of the risk through training and awareness could potentially improve driving performance, thus reducing accidents.

Of course there are a plethora of formal driving courses, many of which have been created by training companies and truck manufactures to satisfy the 35 hour training element of the Driver CPC, covering subjects such as:

  • Safe driving on motorways
  • Safer driving in urban environments
  • Winter driving tips
  • Risk assessment 
  • Fatigue-awareness programmes: e.g. adjusting cab environments to keep drivers awake and alert; emphasising taking breaks, and that different people may become drowsy at different times; measuring for driver sleep deficits
  • Improved driving style: i.e. thinking ahead mainly for attaining better fuel economy but also aids accident prevention

Nick Lloyd, road safety manager for England at Rospa, says: “We must ensure the Driver CPC doesn’t become a wasted opportunity and therefore we would encourage fleets to undertake safety training relevant to the driver’s specific job, such as a distribution company providing urban driving awareness so that it doesn’t become a tickbox exercise.”

As an aid to fleet and distribution managers, Brake operates a simple and flexible driver safety campaign, called ‘The Pledge’. It can be adapted to any size or type of fleet, and attempts to achieve positive behavioural change by winning drivers’ hearts and minds on key topics as speed, fatigue and distraction. 

For instance, stress has been shown to increase risky driving behaviour and is associated with increased involvement in minor accidents. Increased stress has also been associated with fatigue states when driving, which in turn has been associated with increased accident involvement. 

Therefore companies should monitor any stress caused by work by perhaps including questionnaires and audits and discussions with staff, as part of the annual review and through supportive management. 

Sickness absence figures may reflect the levels of stress in an organisation and analysis of the reasons can assist in identifying whether or not stress is a cause of sickness.

(iii) Development of skills

Awareness of risk is one of half of the solution, and should supplement, not replace, the driver training programme. 

There are significant variations in the types of violations and nature of accidents based on individual differences (e.g. gender, personality) and, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the skills of individuals will vary significantly. 

According to the HSE report, for example, women are more likely to have a crash as a result of perceptual or judgemental errors, whereas men are more likely to have a crash as a consequence of a violation. 

This requires a more tailored and focused approach to training which could also be aided by the use of monitoring the driver in situ.

(iv) Driver and truck monitoring

Perhaps the biggest growth area in the world of accident prevention is in the technological advances that have been made in the area of monitoring both the truck and the driver brought about by the latest generation of CANBus-enabled commercial vehicles, satellite navigation and 4G sim cards – commonly brought under the single umbrella term ‘telematics’.

Whether they are specified at the time of ordering the truck or installed post production, the wealth of information available to both driver and owner would be unrecognisable to the fleet manager of 20 years ago.

Features such as dash cams, active cruise control, driver scoring systems, lane departure warning and traffic alert systems can all help. But many drivers find when driving in cities they can also distract, by potentially providing information overload to the driver. 

So from a driver behaviour perspective, they should be seen as “fit and forget” or, perhaps more accurately, “fit and pass on the responsibility”. 

As Lloyd points out “fitting is only one side of it – you should know how to use it. Once the information is received there should be an effective intervention strategy”.

In conclusion, once the decision to employ a driver is made, their safety and the safety of all those that may come into contact with the driver and vehicle become paramount. 

The prevention of accidents may be influenced and, up to a point negated, by the policies and actions of the fleet management team, who are ultimately responsible for accident reduction.

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