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Comment: Road safety and the gig economy

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Delivery riders and drivers have helped many of us stay safe and sane while isolating and social-distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic, but who’s looking out for them? TRL’s Dr Neale Kinnear, head of transport safety, and Victoria Pyta, senior psychologist – behavioural science and human factors in transport, explore the issues.

While delivery drivers and gig economy workers have supported large segments of our community during the pandemic, the safety of these drivers and riders is being overlooked

Introduction

Since the onset of Covid-19, there has been a growing army of gig-economy riders delivering takeaway food, alongside delivery van drivers supplying shopping and parcels. The service of these workers has supported large segments of our community with essential goods while doing our best to “stay at home and protect the NHS”. Sadly, the safety of these drivers and riders is being overlooked.

Even prior to 2020, the gig economy was on the rise. 2019 research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that the number of people participating in the gig economy had doubled over the preceding three years, reaching a total of 4.7 million workers. The study also found an over-representation of young people – who are at higher risk on the road due to their age and inexperience – with nearly two-thirds of intensive platform workers aged 16-34.

Safety issues

Aspects of the gig-economy model of work are likely to contribute to unnecessary road risk. UCL researchers found that the gig-economy model of work can lead to drivers and riders feeling under significant pressure to engage in unsafe driving behaviours including:

Sadly, there have been several fatalities and serious injuries involving delivery riders in the last year, and likely many unreported injuries that have affected the livelihoods of workers and their families. A senior coroner reviewing the case of a delivery rider killed when he rode into the back of a stationary HGV without any aversive movement, stated his concern that the crash may have been caused by the rider being distracted by his smartphone, emphasising the potential implications of smartphone use on the safety of delivery riders.

Learning lessons from elsewhere

Following a spate of fatalities involving delivery riders in Sydney, Australia, increased government scrutiny of the issue led to the creation of the Joint Taskforce: Food Delivery Rider Safety. In December 2020, the taskforce hosted a forum with stakeholders representing delivery riders, contracting businesses, delivery platforms, work health and safety regulators, road safety regulators, research centres and community members. Recent guidelines published by the Taskforce highlighted fatigue, unreasonable delivery times, poorly designed apps and use of unsafe vehicles as key hazards and placed the onus on delivery platforms to find solutions.

In Europe, Madrid’s government announced it would give employee status to gig delivery workers following a national court ruling last year while, more recently in Italy, a Milan court fined food delivery platforms €733m for violating employment safety laws and determined riders should be hired on a quasi-employee basis.

Closer to home

Employees on zero hours contracts are held at arm’s length by contracting businesses hoping to minimise their costs. However, the recent UK Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers on zero-hours contracts are employees and not self-employed contractors makes it clear this is not acceptable.

The ruling – guaranteeing 70,000 UK drivers and riders a minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions – is likely to have wider implications for similarly structured businesses reliant on gig-economy workers. It sends a clear message that operators must share responsibility for their drivers and riders’ wellbeing. This has been followed by calls to extend the new employment rights of the drivers to the safety standards applied to gig economy vehicles.

Resolving the problem

On the back of recent landmark court rulings across various countries, TRL is calling for further research into road safety in relation to the gig-economy. With strong growth likely to continue, now is the time to make changes to ensure workers are protected.

With many years of experience in work-related road safety research, TRL is well placed to help government and businesses to understand and address this problem. We recommend these initial steps to addressing the issues:

  • Analysis of the extent and nature of the problem
  • Consultation with stakeholders and development of a joint taskforce to explore root causes and solutions collaboratively with employees, organisations and authorities
  • Human factors analysis of apps and work models to identify opportunities to minimise controllable risks.
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