I wanted to begin this piece by telling you about the awful moment I ran someone over. Sounds strange?
Yes, but the chance to ‘drive’ in inter-national engineering and construction company Balfour Beatty’s car simulator would surely give me the chance to drive in a way I would never normally do in a real car.
Except it didn’t.
Because no matter how digitalised the scenery of the simulator, your brain still reacts to traffic situations in the same way as you would on the real road.
It proves just how effective the simulator is. Built at the company’s Derby site, home to Balfour Beatty Plant & Fleet Services (BBPFS) – an internal supplier of vehicles and plant to the parent company – the real Vauxhall Astra car is surrounded by a panoramic screen which displays towns, motorways, pedestrians and other car users.
Initially, this computer-generated world looks somewhat artificial but the moment a pedestrian steps out into the road in front of you the scenario becomes very real.
Instinctively you jam on the brakes and attempt to take avoiding action.
That’s why Balfour Beatty has spent around £200,000 on the system (plus tens of thousands on related training and services) in a bid to cut the number of accidents among its drivers.
Mike Brown, director – fleet services, at BBPFS, says: “The simulator is the only one of its kind in the country and we’re very proud of it. We set ourselves a high bar by trying to make it as realistic as possible.
“This has been a massive investment by us but nowadays it is far more onerous for companies to know how competent their drivers are.”
In 2007, Balfour Beatty drivers had 3,300 collisions, resulting in costs to the business of £5.7 million. Separately, last year reversing accidents cost the company £356,000, prompting it to insist on every new vehicle being ordered with parking sensors.
As a result, BBPFS is instigating a wide-ranging safety and risk management policy for its fleet which will touch every driver.
All staff must attend ‘drive safe, arrive safe’ courses run by ex-Cheshire Police traffic officer Nobby Clark.
His presentations cover topics such as speeding, wearing seatbelts, hazard perception and vehicle safety checks.
Thanks to his years working in the traffic department, Clark has a wealth of material to hammer home the safe driving message – including shocking pictures of accidents and their consequences.
Staff must also undertake e-learning modules which test them on the company’s driving handbook, and undergo a psychometric risk assessment, developed in association with Cranfield University, which rates them on their behaviour and attitude
to risk behind the wheel.
Brown estimates that between 15 and 20% of staff who take this test are identified as being at high risk.
He adds: “It is no longer good enough to simply identify who your high risk drivers are – you’ve got to do something to tackle the problem.”
Which is where the simulator comes in. BBPFS specialists devise scenarios to test the drivers and show them how to improve.
This could include their reaction to being tailgated (the rear-view mirror and wing mirrors of the car can be programmed to be filled with a car behind eager to get past).
There is also a working mobile telephone which drivers use while driving, enabling BBPFS to show them the level of distraction involved.
Finally, there’s the gut-wrenching moment when a driver, either through aggression or lack of attention, hits a pedestrian.
“When you run someone over on the simulator, and the body hits the windscreen, it is sickening,” says Brown.
Shocking drivers by their poor behaviour behind the wheel in a virtual environment will hopefully mean that Balfour Beatty’s drivers never have to cope with such a problem for real.
Once it has analysed the data from insurance claims at the end of the year (the simulator programme was launched in November), Balfour Beatty will know how much money, and how many lives, it may have saved.
Zero harm policy
Balfour Beatty has committed to a policy called ‘Zero Harm’, by which the company will cause no harm to its workers, suppliers, customers and members of the public by 2012.
The policy extends to upwards of 500,000 people – staff, sub-contractors or partners – across the globe.
All divisions of the construction group are expected to play a role in achieving the goal, and Mike Brown and his team are introducing them through the ‘Driving you towards Zero Harm’ banner.
He says: “We have a moral responsibility to get to the stage by 2012 where we have zero harm journeys.
"It is very easy to look at the obvious risks at Balfour Beatty because of the business we are in, but one of the biggest risks to our staff is driving a vehicle.”
As well as training Balfour Beatty Plant & Fleet Services drivers, Brown and his team will also have to influence the actions of around 30,000 drivers throughout the construction group.
Save lives and money
As well as improving safety, Balfour Beatty’s simulator and related risk management
policies are devised to save the company money.
In addition to hopefully cutting accident levels and the associated costs, Balfour Beatty hopes to increase the efficiency of its fleet.
In the next few months it will add a SAFED (Safe and Fuel-Efficient Driving) module to the driving simulator to demonstrate the benefits of smoother driving to improve fuel economy.
Brown says: “By going through training we will come out with more fuel efficient drivers. The process can easily be self-funding – even if we save 5% on our fuel bill (Balfour Beatty uses 25 million litres of fuel a year), that’s a massive saving.”