Combatting the road safety ripple effects of COVID-19

8 mins read

Combatting the road safety ripple effects of COVID-19
Combatting the road safety ripple effects of COVID-19

We had a chat with Mark Stephens, Fleet Manager for Uniting Care, about how the pandemic is affecting driver psychology, and what we can do about it.

When it comes to safety on the roads, we’re only just beginning to properly measure and understand the ripple effects of COVID-19. One man at the forefront of this research is Mark Stephens.

Mark’s a former diesel fitter who now works as the Manager for Fleet Operations for Uniting Care – an organisation that provides in-home care and support right across the nation – and especially to the country’s most vulnerable. Mark took the time to share some insights on how COVID-19 has been reshaping road safety and the ways new technologies are helping improve communication on the roads.

Toyota Fleet
Toyota Fleet

You’ve been a fleet manager for 15 years. How has the job evolved since you started?

What we’ve seen around road safety and driver management has morphed considerably. Not only that, comparing the car safety features from 2005, 2006 to what we have today, you’d almost think of those older cars like Model T Fords. We’re now driving around in smart vehicles.

Can you please describe a typical day in the life of a Fleet Operations Manager?

I do a lot of research and development and risk management. We work to find the best ways to manage our drivers. It’s about protecting the cars and protecting the drivers.

“What we’ve seen around road safety and driver management has morphed considerably.”

– Mark Stephens, Uniting Care’s Fleet Operations Manager

What have been the biggest challenges COVID-19 has thrown your way?

The biggest challenge has been around the impact around driver psychology – the ability of the driver to operate the vehicle, mentally, with everything that’s been going on. Talk to any fleet manager, any police officer, any ambulance officer. Everyone’s seen, since February 2020, a change in the landscape to do with the types of crashes.

Is that to do with increased fatigue and stress? Have you done some research into that?

Short fuses and driver distraction. With driver distraction it’s about what’s happening around them with other people on the roads being fatigued and so forth. But also, it’s about what’s going on in drivers’ personal lives. They could have elderly parents that are at risk of COVID-19, or partners or children who’ve lost jobs. They could be wondering whether their job’s going to be safe. All of these things have resulted in driver fatigue.

I do a lot of work with insurance companies. I’ve got a strong relationship with Monash University, and at Swinburn I sit on the steering committee for the National Road Safety Partnership Program. So I’m dealing with the academics and the researchers. I work with the Transport Department too and we’re looking at changes in legislation to do with fatigue and technological distraction. So, the effects of increased fatigue are being recognised.


What’s Uniting Care doing to tackle this extra fatigue and distraction on the roads?

We have probably one of the best driver education programs around. We develop a lot of resources and we try to influence our drivers. We’ll use multiple mediums to get frequent messaging to our drivers to remind them to be thinking about what they’re doing. We also put a lot of work into encouraging people to speak up if they shouldn’t be on the road. We’ve had some serious crashes through Covid but we’ve made sure we’ve taken the learnings from those.

How did COVID-19 affect the way you deliver in-home care and support, particularly to older Australians and those with disabilities?

T​​hat’s a good question. As Fleet Manager you’ve got multiple stakeholders within a company or within an organisation, and externally. When Covid came along the number of stakeholders expanded and that’s a good thing. The first person I reached out to when Covid hit was the general manager of our rostering. Together, we looked at the communication with our drivers, and we looked at the data. For example we’re doing a lot of work with Toyota on in-vehicle telematics and the in-vehicle safety systems. Those are two options we’re rolling out to help empower drivers to manage risks.

How will that work?

We’re collecting the insights through data, then working at influencing the management of driver tasks going forward. Like a lot of organisations we run a client management system to help manage bookings. So, we’re taking that information and we’re matching that with our crash data, our traffic infringement data and all of our other fleet management data, like our payroll information. Then we’re sharing that with the rostering team. It means we can risk-rate a vehicle and they’ll be able to match that with the rosters for that person. So, say a particular vehicle comes up as a high risk for cornering and braking speed – they might have a whole range of key indicators – rostering will look at the vehicle and check the delivery of services. They’ll look at the number of clients, the distance travelled, the area of operations etc. And, from there, they might open a dialogue with the staff member to see how they’re coping.


You’ve had to adapt to meet today’s front line care worker challenges. How could fleet managers from other industries learn from your strategies?

We’ll continue to modify our education and information services, from the data. Our internal social media platform has been particularly valuable. I’ve got 10,000 followers within this organisation. So we’re sharing the analytics with the staff. Just as an example, say in South-East Queensland last month we might’ve had 300 drivers break the speed limit 45 times. Once we share that kind of information, it can change behaviours. And we get commentary back from drivers as well about why they’re doing it.

What are some simple things small business owners can do to optimise the efficiency of their fleet and keep abreast of change?

My target each month is to make sure I’m getting all the relevant information to the drivers. I tend to use text messaging services and social media to make that contact. I still keep the general managers in the loop, but I’m trying to influence my drivers more through middle management and lower level management, right through to direct contact with drivers themselves.

I’d say to those smaller companies that are out there trying to improve their productivity, as well as reduce the risks of crashes – which of course also means vehicles off the road through damage – that the best way to do it is to work closely with the drivers. So they’re driving both efficiently and safely. And, to remember that it’s about driving sustainably for the environment as well as practicing road courtesy – keeping those things in mind will reduce crashes, improve productivity and reduce operating costs.

Toyota Fleet
Toyota Fleet

How have you seen the communities you work with pull together and support each other during this crisis?

It’s interesting you ask. Because we’re a big organisation, with 19,000 staff members, and we’ve seen the management style change through Covid, we’re seeing senior management making more time to work directly with the other levels of staff than we have in the past. It makes sense for the community, and it makes business sense too. Because the smart businesses don’t want to lose their employment base. You can’t afford to turn over too much staff.

Is there a reason why you choose Toyota over other brands?

I’d put it down to product and resale. It’s proven Toyota has the best residuals of all the fleet vehicles that are on the road. There might be a few models with different manufacturers that do very well, but when you’re talking about the whole platform of vehicles Toyota is the best performer. In terms of safety and quality, it can’t really be beaten.

The other major component that fed into the selection process was the available support. I think that comes down to the network they’ve built from within their corporate structure. A thing I’ve really appreciated from them over the years is the open communication. We’ve had very, very good communication. Occasionally they’ll slip up. We’ve had very good communication.

What is your leadership philosophy?

My leadership philosophy is about allowing people to have a voice, to be fair to everybody, and to have different expectations from every employee. Not everyone can give the 100% that you’d love to get. Some people have a 70% or 80% output but if they’re loyal and consistent and they’re doing their job, that’s what you need to expect. And that’s what makes it easier, I suppose.

A big thank you to Mark from Uniting care for taking the time to chat with us.

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This information provided is of a general nature and for information only. Nothing in this article constitutes or should be considered to constitute legal, taxation or financial advice. Before making a decision about any of the products and services featured on this article, you should consult with your own independent legal, taxation and financial advisors, who can advise you about your personal circumstances.

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