I can’t believe that it has already been six months since I started in my part-time role as National Highways’ Chief Road Safety Adviser. This is a new post created to help the organisation address the challenges it faces in achieving its long term aim of zero harm on its network – the strategic roads in England. They say time flies when you’re having fun and I’ve certainly enjoyed my work in the job so far. However, road safety is a serious topic and, from the off, I have seen how National Highways is incredibly focused on protecting the lives of users of the strategic road network and how colleagues within the organisation are passionately committed to achieving that aim.
That’s not to say everything is perfect – if it were, then this role would not be necessary. Being able to bring an external perspective and applying my experiences in the research, automotive and road safety sectors means I can help join the dots across the organisation in ways that might be difficult for those who are fully focused on their specific role. It also means I can help to identify gaps that might have been overlooked simply because no one has challenged existing processes that seem to be working well but could be improved.
The other area where I think I have added a new dimension to the organisation is in engagement with external parties on the topic of road safety. Adding my own network of business contacts to those with whom National Highways already engage, my independent status means that I can provide another route by which organisations or individuals can share their ideas or concerns with appropriate senior representatives at National Highways.
I report to the Chief Executive, Nick Harris and have regular meetings with Chief Engineer, Mike Wilson and Head of Road User Safety, Jeremy Phillips. It has been fascinating to learn from them and others about the challenges of running part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – but it has also been pleasing to see how my expertise can genuinely help National Highways in achieving its ambitious road safety target. In particular, exploring how the Safe System approach to road safety should guide National Highways decisions on future strategy.
As part of the role, I recently spent a day with the traffic officers working from an outstation near Strensham on the M5. These hardworking individuals provide a hugely valuable service in helping to manage traffic operations on the nearby motorways and I was very grateful to be taken out in one of their vehicles to see how they work and some of the challenges they face. I was very impressed by the insights they were willing to share with me on how their specific service and National Highways more generally might improve safety for users of the strategic road network.
Perhaps the hardest part of the role is managing my status as an independent, external adviser. As such, my direct access to internal information is somewhat limited. However, this is more than adequately addressed by having support from excellent colleagues within National Highways who make sure I am provided with all necessary information as needed. The role has also been created this way by design – my external status helps me to avoid getting pulled into administrative processes and day-to-day challenges that might create inefficiencies in delivery of my responsibilities.
Of course, as a part-time role, I have had to balance my work for the National Highways with my ongoing project work, including activities for the Department for Transport, Zenzic, BSI and the European Commission. These other activities relate mostly to the safe operation of connected and automated vehicles, including a project for the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund on how communities can engage with technology developers and regulators on determining the ethics of automated vehicle operation.
There are interesting and useful parallels between the two sides of my work. Road use is an essential part of all our lives, whether directly as a means by which to travel to work, school, shops, healthcare or social appointments or indirectly, in the transportation of goods and services that we use or consume. In reaping the benefits of the road transport system, we have also come to accept the risks and pollution associated with its use but this acceptance is not set in stone. The World Health Organisation recognises road collisions as the most likely way for children and young adults aged 5-29 years to die whilst it is increasingly apparent that the transportation system must evolve if we are to address the climate emergency. The changes necessary to increase the safety and sustainability of our transport systems do not come for free. They may be associated with changes to training processes, more extensive physical infrastructure requirements, more advanced vehicle technologies, more restrictive driving regulations or attempts to influence sometimes deeply ingrained behavioural patterns. Each approach comes with impacts that may be unevenly distributed depending on how they are implemented; for example, improving safety by increasing the presence of concrete barriers on the network increases the carbon footprint the organisation; improving occupant safety by making cars stronger (and therefore heavier) may mean poorer energy efficiency and worse outcomes for vulnerable road users. Navigating this landscape to develop strategies that increase road safety and sustainability whilst also providing a transport system that successfully and equitably serves the needs of its users, whether private, public or commercial is the challenge we face. I am really enjoying my role in helping National Highways rise to this challenge.