Cyclists safety and corporate irresponsibility

Time is money. The mantra of too many employers and contractors of professional drivers. Photo flckr credit Paul Hawke

Cyclists safety and corporate irresponsibility

Drivers given delivery schedules they can’t safely achieve. Employers cutting corners and costs when putting profit before safety. Guaranteed delivery promises which incentivise risky driving. A tale of corporate indifference to road casualties which demands a cultural change - or should we just follow the US example and make companies pay for unsafe practices that shatter lives?

‘If you put good people in bad systems you get bad results’

When American author Steven Covey came up with this quote he probably wasn’t thinking specifically about road safety. However, his memorable line is perhaps one that all public authorities and private companies involved in the delivery of public transport on the roads, as well as construction and other companies in any haulage or delivery supply chain which puts drivers into commercial vehicles, should remember when considering their duty of care, and the cost and value of safety.

When a cyclist is injured or worse on the roads, we often ask whether the driver was to blame. They may well be, completely or partially, but in the case of commercial and public service drivers we are less quick to question the decisions made by their employers or those further up the supply or sub-contract chain, which can create unsafe systems and incentivise driving on the borderline of compliance.

Where seconds count more than safety

If one of my children is walking or cycling from home to school, or a friend’s house, I don’t want them to be sharing the road with a commercial driver who faces potential employment consequences if he or she fails to meet a delivery time, whose remuneration and targets are dictated by time rather than safety, who is not paid for taking a required break from driving, or who is working an unsafe shift pattern. But they do, and coercion or pressure to cut corners costs lives.

Time-related performance targets and bonuses, excess waiting time contracts with London buses, and the fear of disciplinary action or loss of employment, all potentially put profit and ‘time saved’ before road safety. If those responsible for implementing such systems cannot appreciate the cost in lives shattered, then perhaps they should reflect on how the road safety consequences of the concept of ‘time saved’ came back to haunt one of the companies most associated with it. The Domino’s Pizza delivery debacle.

30 minute guaranteed delivery guarantees speeding drivers

You might recall Domino’s promised ’30 Minute Delivery or Your Pizza’s Free’. Great if you want quick service. Not great when you consider the often inexperienced drivers, on temporary contracts and minimum wages, under pressure to deliver on time or explain to their soon to be former boss why they failed to negotiate the traffic quickly enough and had to hand out free pizzas.

Good people in a bad system with inevitable results. Speeding drivers compromising safety with tragic consequences. In America, however, the public looked beyond the role and responsibility of the driver, which must not be ignored, and pointed a finger at those who implement the risk-making targets for short term gains.

78 million dollars – the price of pizza targets

If a business has a safety culture and credible safety policy they should learn from their mistakes. Tragically, Domino’s didn’t learn after paying out $2.8 million to the family of 41-year-old Susan Noonan Wauchop, who died when her car was struck by a Domino’s driver accused of speeding to meet the delivery guarantee.

When Domino’s owner Thomas S. Monaghan eventually announced that the guarantee was being dropped, he admitted there was ‘a public perception of reckless driving and irresponsibility’. That perception reflected the successful litigation, culminating in the 1993 US court award of more than $78 million dollars to 49-year-old Jean Kinder, who suffered head and spinal injuries after being hit by a Domino’s delivery van whose driver had jumped a red light.

The UK Domino’s franchisees followed suit in abandoning the guarantee, but many businesses still haven’t realised, or are ignoring the message that guaranteed delivery times are a conscious management decision to rank time over safety, which can attract negative publicity and potential corporate liability. Even where guaranteed delivery times are abandoned, as with Sainsbury in the UK, without an accompanying change to the 'time is money' ethos, which is incompatible with a safety first approach, the imperative of profit still rules.

Sainsbury - a system designed to penalise prudence

In 2011, the editor of Commercial Vehicle Engineer (CVE) Tim Blakemore published a chilling expose of the approach taken by Sainsbury to the training, management and working conditions of its home delivery drivers. Tim went undercover at Sainsbury’s Farnham store, having successfully applied for a job as a delivery driver.

If you picture all those home delivery vehicles from the major supermarkets, charging around estates, you might comfort yourself that the drivers must be adequately trained. Presumably they have undertaken some test?

Well actually Tim reported that Sainsbury were running more than 1,000 3.5 tonne vehicles nationally to deliver their goods. The 3.5 tonne figure is important. To drive a vehicle over that weight you need an additional Class C1 entitlement on your driving licence, which means training and an additional test (unless you passed your driving test before 01.01.97 and have ‘grandfather rights’ to drive a truck up to 7.5 tonnes without any further training or licence). More importantly, a company operating vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes is not regulated, no matter how large the fleet.

We’re insured so what could go wrong?

Operating trucks over 3.5 tonnes requires an Operator Licence, issued and regulated by the Traffic Commissioner. An O-Licensed fleet has to be managed by someone with a certificate of professional competence, who in theory at least will put road safety ahead of considerations such as on-time delivery targets and profit. So, if you want to run a home delivery logistics business, as all the major supermarkets are, the cheapest way to dodge any regulation costs is to run a fleet of 3.5 tonne vans, driven by people who have no additional driving qualification for larger vehicles, and often no experience of driving anything other than a small car.

Tim was told that when offered a job as a delivery driver that he would need to go through a one-day training and assessment course run by the AA, but that was just the theory. The reality was that on turning up for his first shift, without having undertaken the course, he was handed the keys and a list of deliveries. Provided you are booked on a course, the company’s vehicle insurance is valid, what else matters?

Passed your test in a mini last week and booked on a course, then away you go in a 3.5 tonne van with a tight delivery schedule. What could go wrong?

The price of everything and the value of nothing

As it happened, Tim was an experienced driver, but nobody had seen him drive when he jumped into a Sainsbury’s van. And, in case there is any doubt regarding their motivation for using vans of that size, Retail and Logistics Manager Simon Skeet clarified matters, explaining to CVE that: ‘ It’s no mystery why we choose 3.5 tonne vehicles. It’s to keep us out of the myriad of legislation above that weight’.

It’s no mystery why we choose 3.5 tonne vehicles. It’s to keep us out of the myriad of legislation above that weight.

Simon Skeet, Sainsbury Retail and Logistics Manager

Well, we wouldn’t want anyone who was regulated, such as a Transport Manager, to be responsible for vehicle maintenance arrangements, driver’s hours supervision and working practices would we? They might actually inform the company that one of their systems or practices is unsafe or contrary to the safety narrative the regulations are designed to promote. That just wouldn’t do when in retail, where every second counts.

Tim’s account of ineffective systems to prevent unsafe vehicles going out on the road, the pressures on drivers to get deliveries to customers on time, and the unrealistic scheduled journey and doorstep times which determine a driver’s remuneration, is a story of a system designed to prioritise the pursuit of profit at the price of safety. A system whose architects appear to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Ice on the roads – drivers caution = unpaid time

The drivers for Sainsbury know that if they fail to meet scheduled journey and doorstep times, and thus exceed contracted working hours, they almost certainly will not be paid for any extra time. Tim reported that the store’s rigid policy was to pay overtime only when agreed by the store manager in advance, regardless of a driver’s actual clocking-in and out times, despite the fact that in virtually every case the target times were all but impossible to achieve.

It is the driver’s choice if he or she chooses to cut corners, speed or otherwise drive without due regard for the safety of others. But, when it is foreseeable, and frankly predictable that the employer’s work practices will encourage such driving, and the employer operates a fleet of vehicles in a manner deliberately designed to avoid regulation, questions have to be asked regarding their culpability when lives lost are the inevitable consequence.

Performance KPIs - when time trumps safety

When Tim was driving for Sainsbury, they were still ignoring the Domino's debacle, and offering a £10 voucher if they failed to meet their one hour delivery promise, with Simon Skeet explaining to CVE that ‘being late was a big cost’, but that they ‘reward as many drivers for good performance as we poach for poor performance’. The performance criteria is time compliance. No safety conflict there!

To be fair to Sainsbury, somebody either read about Domino's, reflected on Tim’s embarrassing report, or had an epiphany safety moment, because in 2012 they dropped their £10 voucher gimmick. It would also be naïve to assume that the concerns Tim identified were exclusive to Sainsbury. It may have been an accident of fate that Tim picked them as the target of his report, just as it will be an accident of fate whose child is cycling or crossing the road as the delivery driver chases the performance target their employer has imposed. They may have vetoed the voucher, but the culture also needs to change.

A Lidl more concern for supply chain safety

The consequences for cyclists when companies abdicate their duty of care for safety on the roads was all too evident in a tragedy CTC has reported on many times, the deaths of charity cyclists Toby Wallace and Andrew McMenigall, killed when HGV driver Robert Palmer crashed into them in July 2013.

Palmer was exhausted after repeatedly working consecutive shifts, fixing lorries for his employer Frys Logistics Limited (Frys) during the day before driving through the night to collect goods from Lidl’s distribution centre at Weston Super-Mare to deliver in Cornwall and Devon.

Frys knew Palmer was working double shifts and happily sent a sleepy HGV driver out on the roads. Palmer admitted to the police in interview that he shouldn’t have been driving, but tellingly added that his ‘employer would have been seriously displeased if he hadn’t completed his deliveries’.

The principles of the principal contractor

I have previously blogged about the failure of the prosecuting authorities to hold Frys to account for its gross negligence, but the Frys’ case also highlights the questions that principal contractors, such as Lidl, need to ask themselves when sub-contracting delivery services to hauliers.  

The details of the contract between Lidl and Frys are unknown, except that Lidl chose to contract with a haulier who had scant regard for the most basic of safety principles, rules or road safety. What questions were asked at the procurement stage and was procurement led merely by price? Were there compliance and safety performance indicators within the contract as well as time delivery targets? What questions did Lidl ask when they continued to use Frys to deliver their goods after Palmer killed two cyclists, and 11 days later when Palmer, in startling similar circumstances, drove into the rear of another vehicle?   

It appears that nobody, for example the Health and Safety Executive, has seen fit to ask the questions above. One of the key questions however arising from the Frys’ and similar cases is this: to what extent can or should a principal client be able to sub-contract safety down the supply line, and abrogate any duty of care or responsibility for the prevention of harm generated by their operators?

Sub-contracting safety

The problem of time pressures on drivers imposed by their employers, and of companies sub-contracting safety have been vividly displayed in the construction industry, with construction vehicles involved in the death of 34 cyclists in London alone between January 2008 and July 2015.

In an article in the Evening Standard last July, Rosamund Urwin reported the concerns of construction firms who were endeavouring to put safety first, but were being undercut by rivals who skimped on safety. The progressive companies paid day rates for drivers, purely because of the safety risk created by time pressures and driver performance pay, but were having to compete with companies paying per load or with time-based bonus schemes.

Former lorry driver and campaign officer for the London Cycling Campaign Charlie Lloyd also specifically identified a problem with the huge amount of subcontracting within the construction industry, adding that the larger firms needed to extend their own rules to the companies they sub-contract to.

Every time a cyclist is killed or seriously injured by a construction vehicle in London questions are rightly asked about vehicle design, the standard of driving, road design and lorry bans. What is not always asked is why some employers send drivers out across London, paid by load, when as identified by one of the drivers mentioned in Rosamund’s report, they are telling their employers that it is impossible to drive across London safely within the specified delivery times. An unsafe system by design, rather like Transport for London’s (TfL) bus operation.

Making headway by taking risks

TfL’s bus operation is complex, whether by accident or design. Bus companies such as Stagecoach and Arriva contract with TfL to provide particular services across London. TfL writes the contracts and sets the targets and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The main KPI is the Excess Waiting Time Targets (EWT), which significantly influence the level of both Bus Sub-Contractor Contract Payments and TfL Management Remuneration.

The problems with EWT, described ‘as a system perfectly-aligned to kill and injure’, are outlined within various articles on the Safer Oxford Street Blog. The gap in-between buses is described as ‘Headway’, and bus drivers have to ‘make headway’ by keeping the gaps at a certain distance. This can only be done by speeding up or slowing down.

Don’t brake  - you might be late

EWT are the targets TfL sets for the bus contractors to comply with in terms of compliance with Headway. In a nutshell, the contractor can be fined up to 10% of the contract price for the route if Headway is not maintained. As bus drivers have made clear on the Oxford Street Blog, that means Headway is the key issue for the bus controller.

The bus driver’s day is thus dominated by Headway, with a Headway Indicator in the cab, a controller calling to check on Headway, and explanations to give once back in the depot if Headway is not maintained, all because the contracts, bonuses and system have the requirement for regular services as the predominant KPI.

No KPIs based on KSI’s – just time

I want a bus driver in London to get from A to B driving safely, having regard to the traffic conditions and other variables, such as passengers, the public and weather. A system which puts that behind a regular service is fundamentally flawed in terms of danger reduction, because drivers feel pressurised to catch up and make Headway to keep their jobs.

For the bus companies, no Headway means no KPI performance. No KPI means no bonus. TfL says safety issues are the responsibility of the bus companies. The bus companies say safety is the responsibility of the driver. But who writes and enforces the contracts that determine the payments and bonuses, and arguably compromise the duty of care through contractually enforced time-related incentives? TfL.

Corporate Social Responsibility

This blog has touched on various concerns regarding time-related incentives for drivers and contractors, time pressures, sub-contracting liability for safety, supply chain safety issues and the liability of companies for those injured by their actions or systemic failings, and by those of their sub-contractors.

At the heart of this, however, is the issue of corporate responsibility. Credible safety policies can reduce KSIs, and credible safety policies extending to the actions of your sub-contractors are an issue of corporate responsibility, which is also good business. If, however, companies and authorities are not motivated by that argument, perhaps a more litigious approach to corporate responsibility in the UK, Dominos’s style, would be no bad thing.    

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I entirely agree with your interpretation. I raised the issue of the corporate responsibility of Lidl in the Toby Wallace and Andrew McMenigall case on the CTC Forum a couple of years ago, and received a very mixed response, including some quite vehement and abusive responses. Time to make the roads safer and to encourage safer driving is time well spent.

Back in the 1980s a student acquaintance of mine took up a job as a delivery van driver. He gave up after a while when it became clear to him that he would soon have enough points on his license to be disqualified. The only way he could keep to the delivery schedule was to exceed the speed limit. He didn't want to be a criminal. Fortunately he didn't hit anyone while he was driving the van. Sadly, this is not a new problem.

I work for a global chemical company. A large part of my bonus and everyone else's (senior managers included) is dependent on the total company accident rate, including transport. We have the lowest accident rate of any company in our part of the industry. The transport industry must improve. We have shown it can be done.

Likewise care workers, who are given impossible schedules for home visits.

Likewise, care workers who are given impossible schedules for home visits