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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

The Friday Blog | Communication is critical to cutting the Highway Sector’s abuse statistics

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Head Of Communications and Marketing at Highway Care | Motivational Map Practitioner | Life Coach

It can be upsetting when you come face to face with an issue that is causing people genuine distress, compromising their safety and affecting their mental health.

And when you feel like there is nothing you can do to tackle the problem, it’s frustrating too. But, while I can’t go out and be a human shield for the 1 in 5 highways operatives who have objects thrown at them while at work, or protect them from the verbal abuse that’s hurled at them on a daily basis, it struck me at the Stamp It Out summit that there is something I can do as a communications professional in a highways safety business to make a difference.

Let’s be clear, there is never any excuse for abusive behaviour. But often extreme behaviours are prompted by feelings of powerlessness and frustration. In this case, people have somewhere to be and they want to get there unhindered by delays they hadn’t anticipated. This situation fuels anger that can boil over into verbal vitriol and even physical violence.

The route cause of that powerlessness and frustration is often a lack of understanding about what’s causing delays, why disruption is unavoidable, and what the benefits will eventually be thanks to the work being carried out. So, the communication challenge is threefold:

  1. We need to communicate the impact of abuse on individuals and their families, highlighting the 1 in 4 highways operatives that experience mental health issues as a result and the knock on effects of #roadworkerabuse on recruitment and staff retention in our sector.

  2. We need to communicate the skills and commitment of highways operatives, doing essential work and acting with professionalism.

  3. We need to help road users understand why road works are necessary and what the benefits to drivers will be from any road closures or restrictions.

Some of those challenges are already being addressed.

The Expect Respect campaign has been launched by the Integrated Programme Alliance (IPA), which delivers vital network improvement works across Birmingham and was established by Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Highways Ltd, together with Kier Highways, Arcadis, Tarmac, Highway Traffic Management (HTM) and WJ. It will share the stories of some of the 465 incidents of road worker abuse experienced by operatives on Birmingham’s road networks over the past three years.

By sharing the human consequences of abusive behaviour from the victims’ point of view, let’s hope that those responsible will begin to see highways operatives more as real people, at work to get a job done.

It is clear that those abusing highways operatives do not see them as trained professionals but as barrier in the way impeding their journey. That needs to change. Abuse is not unique to the highways industry; from paramedics to retail sales assistants, there is a serious problem with people feeling unsafe and devalued while at work. Part of the communications task is to raise the status of highways operatives, highlighting the value of the skills, knowledge, and commitment they bring to their role, as well as garnering respect for the hazardous conditions they frequently face at work for the benefit of others.

And that word, ‘benefit’ is central to the third communication challenge. When road works take place it can often mean delays and disruption to journeys, but without maintenance, roads would fall into disrepair, which could damage vehicles or cause worse delays due to unscheduled closures for repairs. Without improvement projects, congestion escalates, safety is compromised, and the goals of making travel more accessible for all cannot be realised. All of those benefits of highways projects to the road user need to be communicated effectively across all touchpoints, helping would-be abusers to see the disruption not as an impediment to their journey, but as part of the process of making their future journeys easier.

And, of course, the real-time need to communicate, before and during roadworks, online and on site, is also critical. Advance warning of closures or disruption across multiple channels, along with journey planning support will help remove the element of nasty surprise for motorists. Meanwhile clear signage – from demountable signs through to light arrows - giving motorists the opportunity to change lane, or adapt their route, can also help to dispel the feelings of frustration from being in a sudden jam or unable to take their anticipated route. Clarity of signage, if a diversion is in place, is vital to lessen frustration at the time of their journey and build trust in future closure diversions.

Improved communication cannot solve problems on its own, but it is part of the solution. What was great about the Stamp It Out Summit is that so many people from across the industry were there to communicate their knowledge and ideas as part of a collaborative approach to tackling the issue.

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