Industry Information

Improving highways safety means building safer systems

July 11, 2023

Serious accidents never have a single cause. There may be an immediate trigger such as a vehicle breakdown, somebody being distracted or a motorist driving too fast for the road conditions. But there will always be a multitude of circumstances that come together in an instant to cause catastrophe.

Think about a busy highway interchange. It’s a highly complex system where road users in all types of vehicles act independently and sometimes irrationally. What each one of those road users does could affect so many others.

Designing a safer junction has to take into consideration what might happen, not just what’s supposed to happen. The same applies to the design and scheduling of roadworks, including lane closures and diversions.

In a roadworks scheme there are multiple interrelated activities, processes and vehicle movements that could never be 100% predictable.

Systems thinking and highways safety

Because of the complexity involved, improving safety comes from improving the culture and applying systems thinking.

One of the key National Highways priorities is that ‘by 2040, we aim for no one to be killed or seriously injured while travelling on or working on our network.’

To put that into context there were 29,804 people killed or seriously injured on UK roads in the year to June 2022. No single initiative or improvement will reduce that figure to zero.

Safety improvement comes from understanding interdependencies. The most obvious dependency is the one between health and safety procedures and how people behave.

If somebody acts in a way that’s contrary to the policy, first of all the system needs a way to detect it.  You then need to understand why policy and practice are out of step. Is it lack of awareness of the policy or potential consequences? Is it project pressures leading to shortcuts? Or does the policy not reflect project practicalities?

If you build a safer and adaptive system you minimise the opportunity for individual events and actions to come together to cause an incident.

How Octavius builds a safer system

Our approach can be summarised in two words: culture and communication. Our STOPThink! programme helps keep a safe working culture at the front of everyone’s mind. It makes safety intrinsic and organic within the organisation, rather than being procedure focused.

Effective communication is at the heart of this. We aim for people to understand why things need to be done a certain way and to feel empowered to challenge any unsafe behaviour.

It’s also reflected in the way our people constructively challenge project assumptions, always looking for better, more efficient and safer ways to deliver the underlying objective, as part of our key pillar of “Assured and Safe Delivery”.

For more information on our safety culture contact Mike Todd (, visit our resource centre, or read our recent STOPThink! Publications.

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