Tackling roadworker abuse: in the news

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tbf Traffic made headlines over the weekend, as the BBC interviewed staff and management about the rise of roadworker abuse – and what tbf is doing to mitigate the risk.

Darren Clark (Operations Director), spoke to Robby West for BBC Look East and the BBC website. He explained the upcoming introduction of body cameras and mobile CCTV for tbf’s Traffic Management Operatives (TMOs). “Hopefully it will make people think twice about the abuse,” Darren said.

Gavin Flurrie being interviewed for Look East

“There’s a perception, I think, within the public, that people carrying out traffic management are just there to be abused – actually, they’re doing a job, helping keep the country flowing . . . they are essential workers.”

Roadworker abuse

Gavin Flurrie (tbf Traffic TMO) detailed some of the abuse workers face on a regular basis: “People coming past throw cans and food at you,” he said.

Workers also face verbal threats, and the danger faced by dangerous driving. “They just floor it,” said Phillip Stollery of Arb East, working alongside tbf on a job near Newmarket. “When the traffic light bloke was setting up, there was a motor coming down, and he went down the road – if anything came up, he’d never stop, not a hope.”

TMOs even deal with physical assault. As Darren recalled, “One of the guys sitting at the lights, they were red – somebody got out of their car, and decided to punch him.”

Dereham Depot Manager Andy Stiff spoke to the Eastern Daily Press: “The abuse is mainly verbal, but we have seen it get physical – like people getting punched. There have been bottles of urine thrown, and even cars driven at people as well.”

The new cameras will act both as deterrent and as evidence of abusive behaviour. “It’ll be much safer,” said Gavin. “Get everything on camera, then you can show what really happens.”

“It’s a bit of a shame, really, that everything has to be filmed for people to behave,” said Phillip. “But I suppose that’s life.”

Roadworker abuse – the facts

Highways England found 330 incidents of abuse reported between Sept 2019 and October 2020 – nearly one per day on average
There are likely to be many more unreported incidents
Abuse cases rose by 10% year-on-year in the first nine months of 2020, despite reduced traffic flows due to COVID-19 restrictions
Only 42% of the British public think enough is being done to protect roadworkers, according to a YouGov poll (July 2021)
One in four roadworkers in Scotland has suffered mental health issues after abuse from the public

Driver frustration

It’s no great revelation that that roadworks are frustrating. Everyone has somewhere to be, and being held up is annoying, especially if drivers think work isn’t even progressing.

Darren acknowledged this in conversation with Mark Murphy on Radio Suffolk: “It is frustrating – I’ve sat there myself!” he said, “But even on the smallest setups our boys have to get there before the actual contractors can come in to do their work. Quite often they’re there by themselves at the beginning and end of the job. It involves quite a bit of coordination.”

But it’s important to understand that frustration is not caused deliberately, he continued. “We’re turning up to make the roads safe for people to go to work.”

Ted Heath, tbf Traffic Planner, also spoke on the programme.

“If I were queuing up in Tesco and I had a particularly long wait, I wouldn’t take it out on the cashier,” he said. “But that seems to be the way that people treat roadworkers, and it’s a real shame.

“A lot of the work that we in particular here do is for either the electric or the water board. Now, that is essential. If the water or power is out in your house, you want the repairs done.”

Mental health toll

Ted also spoke about the toll repeated abuse can take on people’s mental health.

“You take it home with you, if it happens consistently. I’ve been on some high-profile jobs where the abuse is not just one or two incidents in a day – it can be constant.

“Particularly when it’s people just driving by shouting obscenities, you don’t have a chance to say to them, ‘Look, I don’t want to be here. We have to fix this hole or we have to fix this burst water pipe.’

Ted works partly from the Needham Market depot, planning operations, but did years of on-site work and still does so part of the time. “I feel bad for the operatives who are on the road constantly, that’s constant mental strain.”

He urged people to try and see things from workers’ perspectives before reacting.

“Put your mind into the position of those people that need that work doing, and understand that we are there to do these essential works. And it’s not a voluntary thing. We’re not there to upset anyone.

“At the end of the day, we really do just want to get everyone safely home, back to their families.”

Stamp it Out – Putting a Foot Down Against Roadworker Abuse

tbf Traffic agrees with the goals laid out by the Stamp it Out campaign, which include to:

  • Make it socially unacceptable to the public to abuse a roadworker, and to change the public perception of roadworkers
  • Break down stigmas around reporting abuse
  • Develop a simple, open API app for reporting roadworker abuse
  • Have the law changed to grant permanent special status to roadworkers, making it a criminal act to abuse them at their place of work