TEXT: GABRIELA DE NICOLÁS IMAGES: ISTOCK
With the advent of the ‘new normal’, the road safety challenge becomes even more complex for enterprises. The aim is to safeguard the health of employees commuting to work by avoiding contamination and possible accidents. However, we have an advantage: everything we have learned throughout the toughest period of this pandemic.
Companies and organizations involved in and concerned about mobility – Fundación MAPFRE being one of them – have long been striving to achieve a society that is ever closer to the three s’s when it comes to mobility issues: safe, salutary and sustainable. This has been their aim for some time now… until COVID-19 appeared and, in almost every sector, the whole world came to a grinding halt. So much so that, during the lockdown period, mobility was drastically reduced to unheardof levels, with the consequent effect on traffic accident figures. Specifically, the data indicate a reduction of 80 percent in victims for light vehicles, a percentage that has progressively diminished as lockdown measures are deescalated, slowly recovering prepandemic levels. With regard to heavy vehicles, the reduction in the accident rate was much lower, given the need to transport basic commodities. “In fact, during that period, the most frequent type of accident was professional drivers going off the road,” according to Alvaro Gómez, from the DGT (Spanish traffic authority).
The benefits reaped from the reduced mobility during lockdown are not merely limited to a lower frequency of traffic incidents. The reduced pollution figures in major cities were truly surprising. Although, as recently commented by Inger Andersen, director of the UN Environment Program, these are “but temporary improvements on the back of human distress.” Despite this, it is possible to learn from these experiences when it comes to getting back to normal or, as it has been called, the emergence of the ‘new normal’. A different scenario that will lead to a new mobility, particularly as regards work habits.
Precisely in order to discern what commuting to work will look like in the coming months, Fundación MAPFRE organized a virtual seminar in June entitled Exchanging Labor Mobility Experiences in the COVID-19 Era. Moderated by Jesús Monclús, Fundación MAPFRE’s manager of Accident Prevention and Road Safety, those present included Álvaro Gómez, director of the National Road Safety Observatory at the DGT; Javier González López, in charge of Training, PRL and Projects at CEPYME (Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises); Eduardo Mayoral Maestro, Safety, Quality and Processes manager at ALSA; Rafael Fernández Matos, from the Technical Activity area of Quirón Prevención’s Business Management; and Gloria Ortíz Heras, head of Accident Prevention at MAPFRE’s Joint Prevention Service. Around 35 percent of the seminar’s several hundred attendees were from Latin America and there was a high level of interaction, with questions and comments exchanged throughout the broadcast.
The event had a twofold objective. Firstly, to analyze in what way labor mobility changed with the emergence of COVID-19: secondly, to outline several initiatives designed to reduce traffic accidents. Always on the basis of the notion held by Jesús Monclús that “we are in an unknown situation undergoing continuous change” and that this extraordinary situation has taught us many things, among them to embrace the new concept of ‘in itinere health’.
One of them is the importance of the role of mobility management. Álvaro Gómez: “We have rediscovered the fact that, by managing the mobility demand, we can make a really strong impact on the road safety hazards faced by the general population, as well as by commuters. Less commuting means less time spent on the road and, therefore, reduced road risk issues.” This remains one of the leading challenges facing us in this new scenario. But it is not the only one. Ensuring that all commuting trips are COVID-19 free is the other major challenge for the coming months. It is true that, in this area, the recommendation has been to use private vehicles, but the fact remains that nobody wants to return to the pre-pandemic situation in terms of traffic jams and pollution.
This is the conclusion of a study published recently by Transport & Environment, a European umbrella for NGOs that promote sustainable transport. There is no going back: European Public Opinion in the COVID-19 Era is the title of this major survey (7,545 participants) conducted in 21 European cities. The results leave no room for doubt: 80 percent of those surveyed would support measures to restrict automobiles entering our cities; and 64 percent do not want their city to return to its levels of contamination prior to the pandemic. Data from two of Spain’s major cities reveal similar parameters: 74 percent of the Spaniards surveyed did not want their city to return to prepandemic contamination levels; and 82 percent demand that their city be protected from pollution.
It is possible to learn from these experiences when it comes to getting back to normal or, as it has been called, the emergence of the ‘new normal’. A different scenario that will lead to a new mobility, particularly as regards work habits
The measures that need to be adopted to ensure there indeed is no return to the pollution, traffic jams and accidents we suffered prior to March 14 calls for a change of habits. Javier González López feels that a good solution lies in opting for new individual vehicles. In particular, electric scooters and bicycles. According to the Transport & Environment survey, the person responsible for training at CEPYME is not far wrong. The study reflects the fact that 21 percent of Europeans plan to use the bicycle more; and 35 percent to walk to work more often. In this sense, González López highlights two fundamental questions. Firstly, safety: “It’s important to ensure that these new forms of transportation can coexist in our cities without any problems. Public spaces would need to be adapted so that such traffic can flow freely, with more bike or scooter lanes, new charging points for electric vehicles, etc. But these systems may pose new hazards and this calls for new guidelines and a review of road safety regulations. Secondly, we believe that the Government should encourage the purchase of these new modes of transportation, many of which are not particularly cheap.”
So far, measures ordinary citizens can adopt. But the companies also have an essential role to play in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when their employees are on their way to work. Rafael Fernández Matos advocates teleworking and videoconferencing as systems to reduce both in itinere and in mission trips and, as a result, increase the safety of workers and, incidentally, reduce costs. “Spain’s recently published Royal Decree-Law 21/2020, the regulations to be approved by the autonomous communities and the population’s “collective memory” will condition the evolution of mobility in the coming months. Teleworking and disinfecting the interior of vehicles in some sectors will most likely become permanent features.”
In Spain, MAPFRE has also adapted itself to the new mobility scenario with numerous measures. Gloria Ortiz Heras tells us about this: “We continue with our company bus routes, on which wearing masks is obligatory, but we have reduced the capacity; we’ve worked intensively on our communications, producing illustrated safety measure leaflets; and we drafted a strict protocol for taxi use.” There has also been a temporary reduction in “the number of employees in our offices thanks to teleworking; flexible work schedules and staggered start/finish times have been encouraged and business trips and visits eliminated… The number of employees returning to the office will be progressively increased, but always adapted to the current situation.” All these measures are summarized in a philosophy which Ortiz Heras expresses thus: “Mobility is another aspect of our occupational hazards.”
And what about public transit?
Jesús Monclús is aware that it is fundamental: “Public transit is the only alternative for the mobility of a great many people.” That is why our top priority must be to ensure that those who use it for commuting to work can do so with total peace of mind. Álvaro Gómez: “The priority now is for workers to have access to public transit that can guarantee limited occupancy levels, sufficient frequency of service and safe sanitary conditions.” In this regard, some companies have already adopted measures to achieve this. Alsa is one of them, as Eduardo Mayoral Maestro explains: “We’ve implemented a whole battery of measures to reduce risks. Organizing the flow of travelers on our bus station platforms, prioritizing online ticket sales and constantly providing information. We’ve updated our vehicle fleet, seeking the best possible technologies and implementing those protocols we feel are the safest. We’ve installed bioactive carbon filters that eliminate 99 percent of interior air particles and air purification equipment; we’ve also installed screens and alcohol hand gel dispensers; and limited the occupancy levels on our buses.
For its part, MAPFRE is offering free psychological support for its workers so that returning to their workplace can be as stress and anxiety-free as possible. “Many will wonder why we offer psychological support and what it has to do with safety in the workplace. The relationship exists because, after being stuck at home for three months, some employees are afraid to use public transit to return to work.” In this sense, Rafael Fernández Matos has no doubts about the future: “I’m convinced that citizens will regain confidence in our public transit services.”