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The unnecessary cost in lives from road accidents

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The following article has been published in the November issue of Safety Management, the British Safety Council magazine.

I became involved in the issue of road safety some time ago following contact by a constituent whose nephew was killed in 2006 by a lorry driven by someone with undiagnosed sleep apnoea. Whilst investigating this condition and its serious effect on road users I came across a surprising and worrying gap in the system for evaluating safety on our roads.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for investigating health and safety at work. They do much good work examining deaths and injuries in the workplace and improvements that can be implemented are made public. However there is a huge gap in their activity driving for work. Accidents on the road do not fall within their remit and are not investigated by them.  

Lorry drivers have a significantly higher rate of undiagnosed sleep apnoea than the general population; it is often associated with being overweight and having a sedentary lifestyle. The condition results in breathing during sleep being temporarily suspended because of a narrowing or closure of the airway in the upper throat. This causes episodes of brief awakening to restore normal breathing, episodes of which the person may or may not be aware.  

Sleep apnoea is easily diagnosed and most sufferers are easily treated, the equipment to do so costing less than one tank of diesel fuel. This is a relatively small price when contrasted with the 1.5 million estimated by the Department for Transport as the average cost of a fatal lorry collision, excluding any long-term health care, loss of income and insurance compensation for death and injury.

The failure to get proper restful sleep means the affected person is constantly tired and liable to fall asleep during the day. The result of lorry drivers doing so results in accidents, deaths and injured people. According to medical experts there are likely to be between 1020% of lorry drivers affected by sleep problems. With 400,000 LGV drivers this gives a minimum estimate of 40,000 affected drivers. However the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) do not investigate driving for work incidents.

The Transport Minister recently released figures showing that where the journey purpose was known and recorded as “part of work”, 24% of serious injuries and 30% of road deaths could be linked to work-related road traffic accidents in 2010. So using these figures we are talking about 11 deaths on average every week and 105 people seriously injured. As there is no requirement to report work related deaths and road traffic accidents, this is likely to be an underestimate.

In October 2008, the Transport Committee’s 11th report in the 2007-08 Session of Parliamentary work stated: “It is anomalous that the vast majority of work-related deaths are not examined by the Health and Safety Executive, purely because they occur on the roads. The Government should review the role of the Health and Safety Executive with regard to road safety to ensure that it fulfils its unique role in the strategy beyond 2010.”

A report published by the Health and Safety Executive in March 2012 titled, ‘Health and Safety in Road Haulage’ does not discuss issues relating to sleep or fatigue and is silent on matters to do with vehicles on the road. The report focuses on issues like manual handling and workshop safety.

Given the cost in lives and money from road accidents, I believe the government must direct the Health & Safety Executive to use their expertise to investigate work related death and serious injuries on our roads. It is only by rigorous investigation that we can determine the lessons and make such changes as are needed to stop the unnecessary killing and maiming.

I held a debate in Parliament on the issue and government responded to my call by agreeing to highlight safety concerns more, but has not committed to extend the remit of the Health and Safety Executive.

Follow the link for the debate and scroll down to 3.59pm:



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