Fast Track: Keep driving, he said

When you spend hours on the road as part of your job, fatigue is inevitable. Often, the result is an accident, and graduates are particularly at risk. Should your employer be accountable?
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The Independent Culture
When Daniel Webb, a 25-year old graduate, awoke to find that he had just driven straight off the motorway into a ditch, he was more than a little shaken up. But he knew exactly why it had happened. He had landed himself a challenging position in sales, and had been spending up to 35 hours a week on the road. "I was desperately trying to impress the boss by making as many calls as possible. But by the start of the fourth week, I simply couldn't stay awake and drifted off at the wheel."

Fortunately, Daniel lived to tell the tale. But according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), almost 1,000 road deaths a year involve people driving as part of their job. Fatigue is a chief cause and, what's more, graduates feature in the highest risk category. "Tiredness-related road accidents are prevalent in this group because graduates tend to work particularly long hours in addition to coping with a great deal of stress," says spokesperson Roger Vincent. "To top it all, many graduates actually like spending huge amounts of time on the road because they are novice drivers who are extremely excited about owning a new company car." And it's not only people driving on the job who are in danger, claims Vincent. "Being overworked in any environment can cause drowsiness, and this often tends to kick in on the journey home. Yet most employers do not treat this as something for which they may be accountable."

The Health and Safety Executive is so concerned that it has commissioned a major review of relevant legislation. "If there are large numbers of road accidents involving people at work, we would want to consider what could be done about it," says Rosalind Roberts, the principal inspector in the safety policy directorate. "So it's something we are currently trying to measure." If the results reveal a clear link between lack of rest from work and collisions on the road, the Health and Safety at Work Act could be extended so that employers can be held responsible for staff who are involved in accidents. This, maintains Rospa, would be a welcome outcome to its ongoing campaign.

"This could make a big difference to graduates," says Mary Williams, the executive director of the road safety campaign group, Brake - which recently found that one in seven motorists had caught themselves falling asleep at the wheel more than 10 times in the past year. "They will be able to point out this review to exploitative managers."

The issue of junior doctors' long hours is currently being tackled by the NHS, and research published in The Lancet has proved that lack of sleep undermines skill to the same extent as having consumed double the legal limit of alcohol. Using simulated operations, researchers found that surgeons who had gone without sleep for excessive periods made 20 per cent more errors and took longer to complete tasks.

But the occupational health expert Andrew Poole says: "Employees - particularly under-confident graduates - are not in the habit of threatening their managers with recent research and potentially new laws. Consequently, until legislation is actually enforced and prosecutions start making headlines, I don't think much will change. Even legislation may not be the ultimate solution. Take the European Union Working Time Directive, which came into force last month to limit employees' working week to 48 hours. It's generally expected to have very little impact; there seem to be more exclusions and special cases than applications."

Doug Gummery, a health and safety advisor at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), has concerns about extending legislation for different reasons.

"I don't see how it will be possible to determine whether a car accident is the fault of the employer or employee. Let's face it, lots of employees have car accidents because they're in a hurry to get from work to a football match or a party. If there was a crash, they could easily claim it was because they were overworked and therefore tired. In any case, many employees - particularly graduates - work overtime without being asked to, thereby causing fatigue through their own fault."

Sonya Chapper adds that driving when you are tired isn't something that you're explicitly warned about when you begin a new job. "When I became a financial adviser, I had no idea that I'd be out on the road so much. But, like an increasing number of professionals in a competitive climate, I am expected to visit the client rather than asking them to visit me, and I am expected to do this whenever it suits them. As a result, I very often find myself driving to two or three customers' homes in the evening in addition to working a 9-5 day. I was made to feel by my company that I should have known this would happen, and so I have never told them how I sometimes have to keep all the windows open, the stereo blaring and have several cigarettes to keep myself awake on the way home."

This comes as little surprise to Rospa which, earlier this year, found that a third of people driving for work said their employers were not concerned about long hours. One-fifth said they felt stressed to the point that it affected their driving, and only 14 per cent had been given driver training by their firm.

"I worked for eight months as a motorbike courier to supplement my income when I became a graduate recruit," says the engineer Jake Robson. "I was so exhausted when I was driving that it amazes me I'm still alive. But my boss didn't care two hoots. `Just think of the satisfaction when you finally roll into bed,' he'd laugh."

But not everyone is so cynical. "Increasing numbers of organisations are treating occupational road risk as a health and safety issue," claims a spokesperson for Bayer pharmaceuticals group, one of the companies backing Rospa's campaign. Kellogg, the Confederation of British Industry and some county councils are among others. "During the last three years, around half of our 3,000-strong workforce have received training on road safety," claims the spokesperson. Driving is probably the most dangerous activity that any of their staff do, stresses the company, and the training paid for itself within 12 months.

At BT, the cost of accidents is estimated at pounds 27m a year. "We have in excess of 100,000 vehicles with some drivers spending up to 35 hours a week on the road, so safety is fundamental," says a BT spokesperson.

Roger Vincent believes that recent awareness of the dangers of "car offices" has helped form these attitudes. "Organisations used to think nothing of encouraging employees to receive and send faxes or chat on their mobile phone while they were speeding up the M1.

"But since cases such as that of the Times reporter, Kate Alderson - who died when she pulled out into the path of a car while talking on the telephone - more and more companies realise how deadly that can be."