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Accidents Are Always the Driver’s Fault – Or Are They?

Red truck on country road

Accidents are bad news for everyone. Lots of people in a company can be affected.

Most importantly, drivers and other road users can be killed or injured, but the Traffic Supervisor might have to rearrange deliveries without the vehicle involved, the Finance Director will be impacted by direct and indirect costs and the Sales Executive may have to explain to a customer why goods have not been delivered.

But where does the blame lie? Surely it must all be down to the driver? It can’t be anything to do with anyone else. Or can it?

Actually, lots of people can play a role in causing accidents - and by changing the way they think and work, they can play an important role in reducing accidents.

In this article, I will look at some of the ways people in many different parts of the organisation can affect accident rates.

The Human Resources Department – Driver Recruitment

A superficially attractive way to improve driving standards is only to employ safe drivers – but that is more easily said than done. There is already a shortage of LGV drivers, which is likely to get worse: almost half of UK drivers are over 50, and very few young people are coming into the industry to replace them as they retire.

It is well worth the effort to identify good drivers and retain them. Paying low wages or other negative policies will be counter-productive, as poor productivity and high accident rates drive up costs. But what proactive steps can you take to hire good drivers?

  1. Use a variety of advertising methods.
  2. Promote from within, and finance training.
  3. Stipulate maximum penalty points on driving licences.
  4. Psychometric testing. Such tests are widely used at management level, but in my experience rarely in driver recruitment.
  5. At interview, test attitudes towards safe driving.
  6. Seek a health declaration from each candidate.
  7. Take up references and talk to previous employers. Calling an employer not named as a referee can be revealing. 

Health

It is often difficult to get the right balance in managing health. Clearly, drivers must not drive if a medical condition makes this dangerous, but a culture in which reporting a problem results in instant dismissal means they don’t, despite the dangers.

The HR department must develop a policy which balances these needs. For example, the policy might stipulate that a driver must declare a condition as soon as it is suspected, and then seek medical help immediately. If they are advised to temporarily refrain from driving, they should be placed on alternative duties.

It is unrealistic to expect a company to do so indefinitely, and some companies therefore cover the cost of insurance against losing a licence for medical reasons, paying a lump sum to cover retraining. A driver who fails to declare relevant conditions should however face disciplinary action.

Induction and Drivers’ Handbook

Sadly, these are often non-existent. A driver arrives for a new job, is given a list of deliveries and sent on their way. Sometimes they get a drivers’ handbook, but no chance to read it. HR should ensure these things don’t happen.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone to perform well in any job without initial training, and a handbook should contain all relevant information so that the driver is made aware, and can refer to it later if necessary. A handbook which is never read, or cannot be easily understood, is of no use to anyone.

Ongoing Training

Likewise, HR should make sure that training does not end with induction. UK law requires training to continue throughout a driver’s career. This can be taken in various combinations, for example annually as a minimum of one 7-hour day. This might be aimed at introducing a new skill, such as ADR training for the carriage of hazardous goods. However, it can also be aimed at improving existing skills – and accident prevention is a very good target area. This should be considered as a minimum level of ongoing training, and good employers will allocate a budget which can be used for continuous development.

The Traffic Supervisor – Vehicle Routing

I have long believed optimal vehicle routing is one of the most under-rated skills in logistics.

The aim is to route vehicles so they collect and deliver in the most efficient way, without too much time or mileage, and in line with what customers want. Software packages help, but a good vehicle router is a great asset.

Good vehicle routing can reduce accidents in three main ways:

Mileage driven

  • “Is your journey really necessary?” This was an old WW2 slogan, but still relevant. To state the obvious, the safest journey is one which does not happen. It may be necessary to deliver goods to an area, but do you really need to send a vehicle every day? Can you subcontract?
  • Plan the routes carefully to minimise mileage. Forcing a driver to drive here, there and everywhere is a bad move from all viewpoints. It adds to the risk of accidents, costs money, and is likely to lead to late deliveries.

Planning ahead

You may have to deliver to pre-booked slot times, but when you book, think about:

  • Booking as far in advance as you can, to give the widest choice.
  • Booking deliveries to the same area at times which allow them to be made on the same vehicle.
  • Avoiding rush hours.
  • Remembering past difficulties. If a particular customer takes ages to unload, consider this in future bookings.

Using suitable roads

A superficial look at a map might show the shortest route, but the road might twist and turn, and/or pass through lots of towns and villages. A longer route via the motorway will probably be safer - and quicker. But if you have to deliver to a difficult area, be it Snowdonia or the middle of Cambridge, send a smaller vehicle.

  • Allow enough time for the driver to complete the route safely. It is tempting to add extra drops, but this might mean the driver has to rush. Again, this both increases the risk of accidents and is likely to lead to late deliveries.

Driver Debrief

At the end of a shift, all drivers should be debriefed. This should include safety – have there been accidents or vehicle damage, or anything likely to cause these.  Any mechanical defects should be reported - and quickly rectified!

Driver Fatigue

Falling asleep at the wheel is a very dangerous thing to do. Things to consider include:

  • Some people don’t function well at night – it is just the way they are. Do not put people like this on night shift.
  • Encourage people to report health conditions such as sleep apnoea which might cause them to fall asleep, and give them other duties whilst they receive treatment.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards drinking before night driving.
  • Encourage serious discussion about prescription and over the counter medication: some do cause drowsiness.
  • Ensure that a comfortable bunk is available for drivers away from base overnight.
  • Give advice on sleeping at home for shift workers: thick curtains, reducing background noise, and avoiding interruptions such as children excitedly jumping on a sleeping parent when they get home from school.
  • Give advice on diet – a heavy meal can make it more difficult for a driver to remain alert.

Driver Distraction

The supervisor should take steps to ensure that there are no distractions for drivers, eg:

  • Mobile phones.
  • Unauthorised passengers should be banned, especially children. Authorised passengers should not distract the driver, for example by discussing politics or football.
  • Animals in the cab.
  • Eating, drinking, shaving, applying make-up and/or smoking.
  • Road rage. A difficult thing to manage. My best advice to pass on to drivers is to take the moral high ground – avoid swearing, and don’t drive deliberately badly, cutting up another vehicle or blocking a lane. Ignore such behaviour from other drivers, and if necessary slow down to allow them to remove themselves from your life.  

The Sales and Customer Service Departments

It is the natural instinct of those who sell services for a living to keep customers happy. 

Unfortunately, this can result in promises being made which make life difficult for the traffic desk – and drivers. Examples include bookings at awkward times, or offering timed deliveries when the customer would happily accept them any time. 

Anything which makes life difficult for drivers will create more accidents in the long run – something which some people will sadly not even think about.

Before making a new commitment, sales personnel should consult with their logistics colleagues as to its implications.  It may be impossible to achieve without a driver taking otherwise avoidable risks – and of course, in some cases the cost may exceed the profit on the consignment.  

Finance Department

There is an old saying “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”.  My experience of the transport industry is that this is not true – penny-pinching is short-sighted and can cost many pounds.

There are two main ways the Finance Department can help:

Vehicle specification

In short, make sure the right vehicle is selected. This could be an article on its own, but an example is engine size.

It is tempting to buy a van or truck with a small engine. It will be cheaper, and if you look at the simplistic figures a few kilos saved on the weight of the engine will add a few kilos to the payload.

However, if payload is that important, and you often operate close to maximum weight, the vehicle will be under-powered. This will be likely to cause accidents, either because power is not available when needed, or because drivers are reluctant to slow down.  

Also, many optional extras are available today which help to avoid accidents.  Most will pay for themselves quickly, and sometimes reduce insurance premiums.  Examples are:

  • Telematics, which give real-time transmission and monitoring of vehicle-related data, especially relating to driver behaviour. This is used to generate reports, which help to identify bad driving habits. Hints and tips can be provided to enable a driver to improve.
  • On-board cameras
  • Improved mirrors
  • Improved lights
  • Advanced braking systems
  • Dynamic steering
  • Trailer sway control
  • Adaptive cruise control, which detects the vehicle in front and slows the truck to maintain a safe distance.
  • Pre-collision assist. A variation on the above.
  • Speed limiters
  • Hill start assist
  • Traction control. Helps to prevent wheels slipping on mud or ice.
  • Parking aids
  • Attention assist. Detects signs of drowsiness and tells the driver to take a break.

Productivity targets

It is common practice for finance managers to set productivity targets throughout the business, and seek continuous improvement every year.  However, in transport the opportunities to do so may be limited, and the only way in which productivity can be increased is to rush. 

Driving a vehicle safely and rushing are not compatible aims. Setting a target to reduce accident rates and their associated costs will be much more appropriate.

The Boss

Let us not forget the boss – CEO, MD, or whomever.

The most important thing they can do is to instil a safety culture so that behaving dangerously is completely unacceptable in the company.

Too often, Health and Safety policies are based on top-down management, with a “Don’t do that!” approach. If rules are not being followed, the reaction will be like that of a critical parent talking to a child: re-iterate instructions, and imply that the person not obeying the rules is stupid. The reality is that many people react negatively to such a style after the age of 10, so it does not work very well.

A more sensible adult would approach the question with curiosity, and ask why the rules are not being followed. There might be a good reason – perhaps safety equipment is not being used because it has been broken for a month and despite requests, it has never been repaired because the boss does not want to spend the money.

There will of course be some occasions when the rule has been broken for no good reason, for example, the employee could not be bothered to go and fetch the equipment. However, in most cases the reason will be environmental rather than personal, so most attention should be given to the environment and a lesser, but still important, amount of attention given to the individual.

Everyone else

Even if your job is not one I have mentioned, you still have a role to play. 

Do you work in the warehouse?  If so, you and your colleagues need to make sure the vehicle is loaded in good time, that the load is evenly distributed and not likely to collapse, and that the truck is not overloaded.

People in the warehouse admin department need to make sure the driver is not kept waiting for the paperwork.  If you fill-up the vending machine, you need to make sure that is done properly, so that the driver is concentrating on the road rather than being distracted by being hungry. 

The list goes on... it is almost impossible to think of a job in the industry which has no impact on accidents. Whatever your job, make sure this is something you never forget.