August 18, 2020

Injury Prevention Week – improved road safety is just the beginning

Posted in Injury, Road accidents

We have all seen the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on our roads; during lockdown they were quieter, full of active travel such as cycling, and the air was clearer too. It is therefore right that this years injury prevention week focuses on road safety for pedestrians, with a particular focus on children as they head back to school. However, the virus has also thrown into sharp relief a range of other issues with safety in the UK, as highlighted in a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research and APIL.

Where can the UK improve?

The IPPR report is clear, on the international stage the UK has a good record on public safety. However it is also important that we, as a nation, don’t treat this as a ‘job done’. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that there are a range of areas where our government can, and should, help to improve the way we approach injury prevention. These include:

Improvement in these areas is vital, according to the report, not just to help individuals avoid harm but also to reduce the economic harm that injury has on the nation.

Injury prevention and public policy

3 in 10 A&E attendances were for injuries in 2018/19, and the 7th largest cause of disability adjusted life years (DALYs), or years of someone’s life lost to disability, in 2017 were unintentional injuries and transport injuries. These kinds of figures have a significant impact upon the economy, with road deaths & injuries costing us all £35bn in 2018, and work injuries/work-related ill health costing us £15bn in 2017/18.

According to the report the impact of injury is also unequal across society, with those from more marginalised, vulnerable or poorer backgrounds being disproportionately affected in a number of areas.

Unfortunately, popular media and politics have played down the impact of injury, instead focusing on the popular myth that there is a ‘compensation culture’ in the UK.. This myth is easy to disprove  yet persists to this day.

Sadly, the lack of understanding also extends to the costs of preventing injuries in the first place. The current accepted reality, and one that has been espoused by our current Prime Minister, is that the Health & Safety Executive is a burden of bureaucracy on businesses. This is reflected in the last few years of public policy, with the HSE seeing its funding fall by 53% in real terms according to the IPPR report.

In fact, injury prevention isn’t even amongst Public Health England’s top 10 priorities at the time of writing, showing that there is a lack of joined-up policy response to the matter of safety prevention.

Workplace safety

So whilst the UK has a very good record on workplace safety, with the onset of COVID-19 the apparent lack of willingness to address injury prevention could present significant challenges for employers and employees in the workplace.

Whilst we can’t possibly know definitively (yet) the impact of re-opening businesses on the spread of coronavirus, it is clear that the modern workplace will need to adjust (and has already) to our new situation.

The report makes a number of recommendations for the Government to address these issues and the unknowns:

  • enable enforcement bodies, such as the HSE, to act by providing appropriate increases in funding;
  • Statutory Sick Pay should be increased to help workers who need to self-isolate due to coronavirus;
  • businesses should be compelled to make risk-assessments public, with smaller businesses getting assistance to become covid-secure;
  • the “whistleblower” provisions should be strengthened (albeit many of the suggestions are already in place in some form);
  • post-Brexit departures from current health and safety legislation should be monitored, with the Government held accountable when things go wrong;
  • the HSE should be ‘re-branded’ as a partner organisation to businesses, as opposed to purely an enforcement body, helping them to offer more guidance and advice to businesses to avoid issues in the first place.

Many of these recommendations may be difficult for businesses at this time, not least Statutory Sick Pay increases, especially as we have just dropped into a severe recession. However, it is important that the Government does review workplace health & safety policy to meet the challenges of the new normal.

Road safety

Bringing things back to the focus of this week’s injury prevention awareness campaign, the IPPR report also delves into how safe the UK’s roads are and what can be improved. Whilst they also consider the environmental benefits of changes to road behaviour, and the health benefits these bring, we mainly consider the potential safety improvements.

According to the report, whilst the UK has a good record for safe roads, improvements to road safety have stalled in recent years. On average, in 2018, there were about five deaths per day on our roads. Unfortunately this has not changed much since 2012.

The IPPR report cites two reasons why this might have happened: road funding cuts (such as money going to the removal of potholes, which often cause injury to cyclists) and road enforcement cuts. With enforcement in particular, they reference research which has shown that as it increases, compliance improves and casualties reduce. What the report also believes is lacking is a coordinated approach to learning from traffic collisions; data around injuries in the UK being a main area of concern overall for them.

To address the issue, the report feels a public focused, multi-modal, zero-carbon transport system is needed to reduce road danger and environmental damage. Given that the evidence points to most pedestrian and cycling casualties involving a motor vehicle, with 3/4 of pedestrians killed or seriously injured being hit by cars, it is believed that redesigning urban transport to reduce the use of private cars is vital. The changes seen in towns and cities during lockdown, as many areas were made inaccessible to cars, were clear and appear to have had a positive impact on road safety too with an estimated 1,750 fewer deaths related to road traffic and emissions in May 2020.

The IPPR recommend that the Government introduce active travel measures, prioritising cyclists and pedestrians at junctions for example. Improved infrastructure could help with this, and is something that Mark Hambleton, partner in our Personal Injury team, has been a passionate advocate for as an experienced cycling solicitor.

Furthermore, it is suggested that more should be done to reduce unnecessary car journeys through a public campaign. The emphasis upon ‘unnecessary’ car journeys is very welcome, as we know there are many people living with disabilities in the UK who depend upon vehicles to live their lives. Ensuring that change happens without disadvantaging those who are already disadvantaged is crucial to take things forward in the right way.

This report from the IPPR comes at a difficult time for the World, however it seeks to clearly recognise these challenges and how they impact upon public health and safety. As a firm with a wide range of injury expertise, we understand the impact that avoidable injury has on people’s lives - whether they suffer devastating, life-changing injuries or not.

In building a Team Around The Client, we see the impact that injury has not just on the individual but also on their families, friends, and the system which has to support them either through recovery or rehabilitation into a new way of living. We hope that the Government takes note of reports like these and understands the danger of ignoring the potential for injury in society, or worse belittling the efforts those in our profession go to in order to help those in need - if you want to prevent further injury to individuals, and the impact this has on a now struggling economy, it is time to view personal injury (and clinical negligence) claims as an opportunity to learn and make the future better.

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