Saturday, September 17, 2011

Road Safety is a Sustainability Issue

I was driving home from my Friday morning shopping yesterday, listening to the radio. The news told of a 25 year old girl who, at 0715 am, was crossing a busy road on a pedestrian crossing and was struck by a jeep, thrown around 20 meters and killed instantly by an oncoming car. Doesn't that make you angry? Senseless loss of life because some driver was too rushed or too careless too distracted to notice a young woman in front of his windscreen. Some young girl whose family is now burdened with a tragedy that will change them forever. A young girl who had yet to make her mark on the world. Who knows how she could have touched our lives?

This young girl is not alone. She is joined by over a million people who lose their lives every year on the world's roads. Around 50 million others are, arguably, the lucky ones, that is, those who are injured in road traffic accidents but hold onto their lives. However, many of these injuries leave them permanently disabled or cause them to lose their ability to work, communicate, support their family, smile, laugh or dance. 

Road Safety is a business issue. Road Safety is a Sustainability issue. Road Safety is an Issue. Period.

More people lose their lives in traffic accidents each year, many just like the senseless murder of a 25 year old above, completely avoidable, than those affected by other disasters which make major headlines. 1,836 people died in Hurricane Katrina . 3,000 people died in the September 11 attacks. Up to 21,000 people died or are unaccounted for after the 2011 Japan earthquake.  316,000 people died in the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. 1,300,000 people die every year in road traffic accidents. This figure is taken from the Global Status of Road Safety report published by the World Health Organization in 2009. The number is possibly higher, by now, in 2011. If current trends continue, road crashes are predicted to become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030. A 2006 paper calls road traffic accidents: The Neglected Epidemic.

I recently published an article on entitled "Are CSR Managers complicit in 1.3 million deaths per year?" In this article, I make the case for road safety as a corporate responsibility and sustainability issue. Here's why:

It is the responsibility of companies to ensure the safety of their employees. In terms of road safety, this refers both to employees who are professional drivers for a company, employees who drive a company car or their own car to and from work and employees who are pedestrians. It is the responsibility of companies to ensure that all its employees both understand and act in a way which is safe for themselves and all other road users.

It is the responsibility of companies to do no harm in society. Employees, whether drivers or pedestrians, can cause road accidents. These accidents impact on society resulting in a tragic consequences for individuals, families and sometimes entire communities. Employers must take responsibility to do everything reasonably possible to ensure that their employees, on the job or off, are not creating unnecessary and costly damage to society through unsafe behavior on the road.

Equally, to what extent do cellphone companies share responsibility for the new phenomenon of distracted driving due to cell-phone use in cars? A WHO report published in 2011 addresses the growing risk to drivers and the public of increasing use of cellular phones while driving (both hand-held and hands-free). Are cellular companies part of the problem or should they be part of the solution? A quick look at the Vodafone 2010 Materiality Matrix shows that cellphone use while driving is not on the materiality radar.

However, 12 of Vodafone's 21 employee or contractor deaths in fatal work accidents in 2010/2011 were due to road traffic accidents. In addition, 16 members of the public died as a result of road traffic incidents involving either Vodafone’s or contractors’ vehicles or drivers. There is no reference to whether distracted driving due to cellphone use may have contributed to the deaths of these 28 people, but if I were Vodafone's CSR or HR Manager, I would be pulling out all stops to find out.

It makes eonomic sense for companies to invest in road safety. The overal economic burden of road traffic accidents is estimated at over $500 billion per year. Just think how this amount of money could be deployed to alleviate poverty, support sustainable development or improve the lives of people (who in turn become managers, employees, consumers and suppliers of businesses). But if that sounds a little too indirect, think of the fact that it costs three times as much as someone's annual salary to replace them, or the fact that loss of key employees could lead to loss of business continuity and loss of sales, or the fact that insurance premiums are higher when accident rates are higher, or the fact that significant amounts of management time are expended on dealing with the aftermaths of road traffic accidents affecting employees. Why would a business choose to ignore these costs? Wouldn't an investment in instilling a road safety culture be the more sensible (and moral) option?

Environmental damage due to road traffic accidents is significant. Crashes lead to greater pollution through fuel spills, release of different toxic chemicals into the air and may also affect local road infrastructures and biodiversity. Often, trucks carrying hazardous or harmful chemicals can cause significant environmental destruction. For example, earlier this month, a tank wagon carrying silicon tetrachloride, a strong acid, broke down on the 316 national highway in Gansu province China. The chemical leaked from the vehicle, producing large amounts of white mist after it reacted with rain. The diffused emissions damaged power supply equipment on the nearby line that runs parallel to the highway.

In addition, as a result of accidents, whole cars or parts require replacement which generates additional use of resources. Not to mention the additional resources used in ambulances, police, hospital care and so on. Has anyone calculated the environmental impact of road accidents? I believe that improving road safety would also be a great contribution to environmental stewardship.
Not paying attention to road safety of employees is, I believe, a liability for companies and an abrogation of responsibility. It could even be viewed as complicity in the perpetuation of high numbers of accidents and deaths. Like the Vodafone example above, very few companies refer to road safety in their Sustainability Reports and it is almost never listed as a material issue for the business to address.

A positive example to follow is Elbit Systems, a global defense electronics manufacturer. In Elbit Systems' 2010 Sustainability Report, the company describes its actions to embed a road safety culture. This includes participation in a government-led scheme to reduce road accidents with an ongoing Drive Differently at Work campaign. As part of this program, employees undergo road safety and awareness courses and each company vehicle carries a sticker with a hotline number that other motorists can use to complain about Elbit drivers. Recently, Elbit started installing “Green Boxes” in company cars. Like an airplane’s “black box,” this device tracks the driver’s speed, acceleration, zigzagging, brake usage etc., enabling managers to scrutinize employee driving practices for preventive training and also post-accident analysis. In a pilot program, Elbit installed "Green Boxes" in 100 company vehicles and found that the technology quickly proved its worth. Elbit has also installed a high-tech driving simulator, at great expense, for road safety training, similar to flight simulator training for pilots. Simulator training is both fun and highly effective, having been proven to reduce accident rates by up to 45 percent.

This approach by Elbit is a serious demonstration of the responsibility the company accepts for the thousands of its employees who drive company cars as well as the actions of those employees which may affect pedestrians.

In a recent chat with Darrel Rowledge, who has been working in the area of Road Accident Prevention for over 12 years, he told me that research shows that the most significant cause of accidents are "unexpected dangers", the things that happen while you are driving that you are unprepared for - people walking out into the road, rural collisions with wildlife, lost loads, fog, smoke and other unexpected events which cause accidents of varying degrees of severity. Dr Rowledge has devised a collaborative system which communicates advance warning to drivers - simulations using this system have proven to be effective in preventing collisions. 

However, technology alone will not suffice. Road Safety is the result of comprehensive attention to safety factors such as the state of roads, signage, speed regulations, vehicle safety features, car maintenance and more, requiring concerted efforts by all stakeholders including governments, car and parts manufacturers, companies and people. When it all comes down to it, however, it's the individual behind the wheel that makes the split-second decision between safety and disaster. A study by Barbara Charbotel in France showed that "road crashes during the course of work are the primary cause of occupational fatalities in most industrialized countries. They represent 20–25 percent of fatal work accidents in the United States  and 30 percent in Canada , and they are associated with significant human and economic costs. In France, nearly 40 percent of fatal work accidents are road crashes."  In the light of this, surely the time has come for CSR and Human Resources Managers in companies to ensure that they are doing everything they can to contribute to a safer world while protecting their business interests. I say it is their responsibility to do so.  

Finally, if you want to hear more about safety in general and road safety in particular, join me in a webinar  (29th September) and download a free ebook on the subject (including an article by me).

Whether you are commuting to or from work, driving around with your family or simply taking the car to the nearest ice-cream parlor, safe driving!

Disclosure: Elbit Systems is my client and I worked on the company's 2010 Sustainability Report.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Emma said...

Hello! I think that this was an interesting view on how to look on business ethics.
Im a student from Jönköpings itnernationan business school and just about to use your blog for an assignment in business ethics. Thanks for an interesting blog!

/ Emma

Linda said...

I think this is a very important subject and I agree with you on many of the points you made. It is hard though for companies to control the behaviour of their employees outside work. It is one thing when you are working with something that is directly connected to traffic, such as busdrivers, road constructors etc. then road safety is most likely (and hopefully) the most prioritized issue. But when it comes to "simply" driving your car or walking on the sidewalk that should be common sense and that is hard for a company to teach their employees.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that this gets attention in CSR, but it's hard to put responsibilty on the corporations regarding the personal behaviour of their employees. What they should do is to encourage their workers to leave work at work and to not bring it into the car. If they need to be able to answer the phone while driving, they should be provided with a bluetooth. But then it's up to the person driving to take his or her own responsibilty.

Right now in Sweden there is a discussion on how texting and talking on the phone (not using handsfree) while driving should be prohibited. It shouldn't have to be written in the law, it should be common sense. But since the human being is irrational we have to deal that fact by making this obviously necessary law. So this road safety issue should be an interaction between the law, corporations and the idividual.

elaine said...

thanks, Emma. Glad you found the post helpful, elaine

elaine said...

Hi Linda, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that companies cannot control the behaviour of their employees outside work (although driving to and from work is still considered work!) I agree that individuals should take responsibility. However, I firmly believe that companies, who employ professional drivers, who give company cars to other employees and who generally are responsible for a lot of traffic on are roads, can do MUCH MUCH more to instil a culture of road safety among all employees. I believe companies have a responsibility to do more - whether is about awareness and training, bonuses for good driving, penalties for bad driving, creating and enforcing strict policies about road safety etc. Companies who do this can have a big impact on road safety. It also makes good business sense.

Alternatives to road travel such as train or other forms of public transport are a great option, I agree, both safer and more environmentally friendly. But they do not relieve companies of their responsibility to promote safe driving for those who still use cars.

Finally, I also fully agree that this issue requires governments, corporations and individuals to take action. But then, that applies to almost everything else on the sustainability agenda.

thanks again, warm regards, elaine

Sophie Hobson said...

This is a very interesting view on road safety. Many people would say that these sorts of accidents are down to the negligence of the driver. But should there also be more responsibility placed upon the company when it comes to staff selection and training? Great post.

elaine said...

Hi Sophie, thanks for reading and commenting. As you have gathered, yes, I believe companies must share the responsibility of making road traffic safer. A car is a tool for work - both in getting to and from work and often in performing work. It is in companies' interests to share responsibility for creating safety awareness and better practices. After all, an employee who has an accident may not be available for work, and also creates higher costs for the business (admin, insurance, repairs etc).
best regards, elaine

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