Fleet News

Special feature: Never-ending battle to keep death off the roads

MARY Williams is a personable, likeable and easy-going former fleet journalist who, in the last 11 years, has become a figurehead for those trying to reduce deaths on Britain’s roads.

While her demeanour is friendly and chatty, there is a gritty determination to her character that drove her to start up the road safety charity Brake in 1995.

After living through the grief of seeing more than one member of her family killed in traffic accidents, she realised that there were no health and safety charities that focused on the roads.

She recalled: ‘There were charities with road safety elements to them but nothing acting simply in the interests of road safety and providing support for victims.’

And so Brake was established and Williams immediately focused her attention on the fleet industry.

She said: ‘It felt like the fleet industry as a whole was not governed with any clear risk management legislation or even any guidance.

‘That’s now beginning to change.’

Brake set up the Fleet Safety Forum in 1996, which to this day provides safety advice for firms.

Each month risk management information and sheets are sent out, keeping fleet managers and health and safety officers abreast of the latest goings on.

The industry response in the early days was generally positive.

Williams said: ‘We were very much beginning to ride the wave of concern, certainly from about 1998, coming out of a growing awareness that risk management does extend to the roads.’

That awareness was boosted in 2001 when Williams, by then rewarded with an OBE for her work, was part of the team that wrote the Driving at Work Guidance for the Health and Safety Executive, now used as a benchmark for companies’ responsibilities.

She said: ‘As I was writing that guidance it certainly became clear to me that there was a growing understanding.

‘Prior to that there seemed only to be an understanding that driver training was key.

‘You can train someone but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be safe in six months’ time. We were trying to make people understand that risk management really starts from understanding what your problem is.

‘Look at crash data, look at near-miss data, interview drivers and then implement risk management solutions.’

Williams also expressed enthusiasm for psychological and physical assessments, as well as details of their lifestyle, to further understand the individual.

She said: ‘I’m particularly concerned to continue to address driver fatigue issues. It’s a very complex area that requires a detailed understanding of your employees and their personal lives. If you’ve got a driver with a newborn baby they’re probably not having a lot of sleep and shouldn’t be driving hundreds of miles.’

Another concern is vehicle maintenance, with not enough firms keeping a close eye on the state of their vehicles. Yet another is fleet drivers that often have to jump into a car they are unfamiliar with.

Last year Brake and delivery giant Fed Ex set up an academy offering free training and advice for fleets or any other organisation that wants it.

But despite growing awareness of road safety issues, more is needed. Williams said: ‘There’s a certain amount of apathy in the industry still, which needs conquering.

‘We have 1,000 subscribers at the moment that get regular risk management information from us, but there are tens of thousands of company health and safety officers who should be accessing this information and aren’t. We’re constantly making pleas that they take this seriously.’

However, health and safety officers are often easier to get through to than fleet managers.

‘Fleet managers are harder because they have so many priorities and this is only one aspect of their agenda,’ Williams said.

‘Many companies, particularly smaller ones, don’t necessarily have a full time health and safety officer to help them with these important risk issues.’

Williams feels that vital to improving standards is a revision of the RIDDOR legislation to include work related incidents, something currently being considered by the Government.

She said: ‘We think that’s absolutely key. If you have the legislation in place it gives far more steer to employers that they have to do something about this.’

Other concerns include the growing trend for employers to offer cash for car schemes rather than a ‘traditional’ company car.

Williams said: ‘These schemes take a degree of responsibility away from the employer. It’s hard to manage and monitor how that vehicle is being used. Moving away from a company car culture can be bad for safety, because it takes away that control.’

For fleet managers who understand the social responsibility placed on their firms, but can’t convince those at the top, Williams advises pointing out cost savings.

Improving driver safety can have considerable cost benefits, such as savings on accident damage, fewer staff off with injuries, lower insurance premiums and more.

‘It makes good business sense,’ she said. And you’re going to lose your reputation if someone from your firm hits someone.’

After 11 years of campaigning, Williams is far from happy, despite success in supporting bereaved relatives of accident victims.

She said: ‘The biggest disappointment is that the number of people killed on our roads has not significantly declined. We’ve grown from nothing to a charity with a turnover of £600,000 a year, but if you compare that to something like the RNIB or Shelter, we’re still very small. We need to grow faster to deliver more.’

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