Driving Change: Vehicles don’t crash, people do

Collision prevention takes growth mindsets, psychological safety and a just culture says best-selling writer Matthew Syed at the recent National Highways’ Driving Change conference.

Road safety – a health and safety issue

Road safety is not a transport issue – it’s a health and safety issue. This was the call to action from National Highways head of commercial vehicle incident prevention, Mark Cartwright, at the recent #DrivingChange conference. A range of expert speakers, including best-selling writer Matthew Syed, addressed a diverse audience of H&S, procurement, fleet and managerial delegates.

Driving change – it’s personal

National Highways and Driving for Better Business hosted their second national conference on March 21 at the National Space Centre in Leicester. Like its predecessor, this conference did not pull its punches, with the clear theme being that vehicles do not crash – people do. 20m vehicles on the UK’s roads are driven for work and so changing employee behaviour is essential if we are to seriously reduce the 1,700 road deaths and 28,000 people seriously injured on the UK’s roads each year.

Fourteen expert speakers addressed how safety interventions were effected in aviation and rail; the benefits of psychological safety; and the need for open investigations into collisions and near misses, within a ‘just culture’.

CEO at the Society for Occupational Medicine, Nick Pahl, joined Professor of Sleep and Circadian Science, Clare Anderson, and editor of The Driver Handbook, Glen Davies, to discuss the importance of being proactive about driver health, mental welfare and, in particular, guarding against the risks of fatigue and poor sleep patterns.

However, journalist and best-selling author of Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed, who has spent his career discovering the dynamics of safety improvement and high-performance teams, pulled together many of the themes of the day. Great performance and sustained, continuous safety improvements require a growth mindset, he says, not just within the senior management of a business, but inculcated throughout their workforce.

A Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the opposite of fixed thinking. It is the beliefs, behaviours, and habits that consistently deliver an open attitude to personal development, and so deliver high individual and team performance. Fixed thinkers, he says, see talent as innate and solely responsible for success, while a growth mindset sees talent as only one component, with development, curiosity, and a passion for continuous learning taking businesses and individuals far further.

Syed cited the huge upsurge in Microsoft’s revenues since the appointment of Satya Nadella in 2014 when the company was worth $300bn – it is now worth $3 trillion, which Nadella attributes to his introduction of a growth mindset.

Syed reflected on the statements of previous speakers, underlining the importance of Interum CEO Tom Geraghty’s discussion of psychological safety. Psychological safety means employees believing that they will never be punished or humiliated for voicing questions, concerns or ideas. This is vital if employees are to be comfortable communicating safety concerns or solutions.

A just culture is also essential, says Syed – one which does not attribute blame inappropriately or too hastily. For instance, when a study revealed substantial incidents of NHS nurses failing to wash their hands, the immediate outcry suggested they should be dismissed. However, the nurses in question were often responding to patient emergencies in which seconds counted – and the hand sanitisers were located in the opposite direction to the patient rooms. “Sometimes professionals struggle to reconcile contradictory demands – and so we need to make the system compatible with the demands we put upon them,” says Syed.
In the case of the nurses, this meant moving the hand sanitisers so they were en route to patients – and compliance rocketed. With drivers it may mean re examining schedules, routes, or targets for real-world viability.

No-blame culture

Syed also examined the idea of the no-blame culture which Saul Jeavons, director of the Transafe Network, had posited as an essential part of an effective collision investigation. It is very easy for collision investigations to blame the driver, without looking deeper at the organisational failures which contributed to non-compliance, or which meant non-compliant behaviour was not challenged before a collision occurred, says Jeavons.

Mark Cartwright, the day’s host, recalled an incident in which an HGV driver – whose need for caffeine was so well known his work nickname was Billy RedBull – caused a fatal fatigue-related collision. Yet no one stopped him driving a lorry before he killed someone. Jeavons says that when companies focus solely on the driver or immediate ‘blame’, they can miss the learnings which prevent such an incident happening again.

“The question should always be: ‘What can we do as an organisation to prevent this from happening again?”

Effective Collision Investigation

Tesco is an excellent example of effective collision investigation, he says. One of its drivers had a narrow escape as a car ploughed into the van’s rear doors while it was safely parked in a layby during a delivery. Although the Tesco driver could not have prevented the incident, the company redesigned the deliver doors so drivers could always unload on the pavement. Jeavons also warns against enacting harsh penalties for mistakes. “When airport ground crews faced dismissal for colliding with planes, they simply stopped reporting the collisions,” he says.

Syed agrees but says accountability is also an important part of the chain. “If you do not assign blame, you won’t take professionals with you and you won’t take the public with you,” he warns. “A just culture has accountability. However, we also have the best learning opportunities when we fail,” he says.

A growth mindset and a just culture therefore require discrimination between serious and unacceptable breaches of policy – and someone simply making an error, which reveals an opportunity for them and the organisation to improve.

Growth mindsets are particularly important for companies which consider themselves leaders in their field, or well established. “Success can lead to complacency,” he says. The company or its employees’ wealth of experience can actually shut down debate and stifle concerns or new approaches. “We need to switch our expert cultures from ‘know-it all’ to ‘learn it all’,” he says.

That means being open to the reasons for other organisations’ success, or to investigate success within a specific branch or depot of the business and to cascade that learning. Syed also believes transport should share as much data as possible as a sector, because the richer the datasets, the more safety outcomes can be improved.

Louise Cole
Logistics and Fleet Journalist
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