Work-related road safety and the gig economy

Delivery riders and drivers have helped keep many of us safe and sane while isolating and social-distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, but who’s looking out for them?

Published on 15 March 2021

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By  Victoria Pyta - Senior Psychologist, and Dr Neale Kinnear - Head of Transport Safety  

While the roads have been quieter than normal since the start of the first COVID-19 national lockdown, there has been a growing army of gig-economy1 riders delivering takeaway food and van drivers delivering shopping and parcels. Supermarkets like Tesco experienced a rapid increase in demand for grocery deliveries and hired thousands2 of delivery drivers in a few months between March and May 2020. And food delivery organisations like Deliveroo have signed up tens of thousands of new riders3 over the last year, more than doubling their pool of riders. The service of these drivers and riders has supported large segments of our community with food and essential goods while doing our best to “stay at home and protect the NHS”. Sadly, their needs and safety are often neglected.

Employees on zero hours contracts are held at arm’s length by contracting businesses hoping to minimise their costs, partly by divesting responsibilities. However, the recent UK Supreme Court ruling (that Uber drivers on zero-hours contracts are employees and not self-employed contractors4) makes it clear this is not acceptable. The ruling is likely to have wider implications for similarly structured businesses reliant on gig-economy workers as it sends a clear message that operators share responsibility for their drivers (and riders’) wellbeing.

Health and safety legislation clearly provides that contracting organisations are responsible for managing the risks associated with the work that they control. The recent Supreme Court ruling may mean that investigators are even more likely to look beyond the ‘self-employment’ label. 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.

Aspects of the gig-economy model of work are likely to contribute to unnecessary work-related road risk. Most gig economy work involves at least some driving between locations and some involves predominantly driving (e.g. food and parcel delivery, taxi driving). The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimated that there were approximately 2.8 million people in the UK participating in the gig economy in the 12 months up to August 2017. They also found a substantial over-representation of young people who are at higher risk on the road due to their age and inexperience5. In 2018, 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:

  • exceeding speed limits to try to meet deadlines
  • interacting with their smartphone while driving/riding (for example, to accept and reject jobs)
  • driving while fatigued from excessive hours of work and/or mental overload6.

A senior coroner reviewing the case of a delivery rider killed when he rode into the back of a stationary HGV last year without any aversive movement, stated his concern that the crash may have been caused by the rider being distracted by his smartphone. He expressed general concern about the implications of smartphone use for the safety of delivery riders7.
A spate of fatalities involving delivery riders in Sydney, Australia, has resulted in increased government scrutiny of the safety problem through the creation of a Joint Taskforce: Food Delivery Rider Safety8. In December last year, the taskforce hosted a forum to hear more about the problem and potential ways forward with stakeholders representing delivery riders, contracting businesses, food delivery platforms, work health and safety regulators, road safety regulators, leading research centres and community members. Next steps include an incident analysis, further stakeholder consultation and research by the Centre for Work Health and Safety. The outcomes of this will be worth monitoring for opportunities to improve safety in the local context.

UK Health and Safety legislation already enables enforcement agencies and courts to look beyond the ‘self-employment’ label and consider the way the employment relationship operates, including the level of control a worker has over the way they work. If one of your employees is killed while driving for work, and there is evidence that serious management failures resulted in a ‘gross breach of a relevant duty of care’, your company or organisation could be at risk of being prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Businesses are also responsible for ensuring the safety of other road users around their drivers and riders.

With many years of experience in work-related road safety research, TRL is well placed to help government and business to understand and address this problem. We recommend initial steps to addressing the issues:
• analysis of the extent and nature of the problem
• consultation with stakeholders to explore root causes and solutions
• human factors analysis of apps and work models to identify opportunities to minimise controllable risks.

TRL can assist you (and your clients) with:

  • A tool to measure individual driver/riders’ risk profiles based on their actual driving/work patterns
  • Review of corporate policies, systems and procedures for opportunities to better manage risk
  • Assessment of gaps in knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours to identify where training interventions and/or technology could assist.

  1. The term ‘gig economy’ is being used here to describe systems of work where people get paid per task (or ‘gig’) and in which service providers are linked to service users via an app or other digital platform.
  2. 56% of gig economy workers are aged 18 to 34 whereas they constitute only 27% of the general population




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