Transport Network caught up with George Lee, head of the Road Safety Markings Association (RSMA), to chat about dangers and opportunities, standards and skills, and the threat of driverless cars.
Q. You have had some very interesting talks at Roadmarking Live about driverless cars. Some suggest they represent a bit of a threat to the road marking industry. What is the feeling in the sector at the moment?
The reason we did the session on driverless cars was actually to flag that there may be very large opportunities, but there are also large risks and threats as we move to autonomous vehicles.
It is very important from a trade association point of view that you flag up the risks because it gives us the chance to be prepared and influence some of those outcomes.
I think there is also recognition that the timelines are very long and there is a degree of uncertainty over exactly how much market penetration there will be at what time from driverless cars.
There are also significant and substantial opportunities for us as well and as an industry we will take them forward.
Q. What is the main opportunity the industry needs to grasp hold of at the moment?
The large opportunity lies in the fact we are getting recognition from Highways England about the importance of road markings. Good markings aid movement of goods, reduce accidents and consequently make our network more efficient. On the strategic road network it is being recognised at high level that road markings add value to the maintenance proposition and to the redevelopment proposition that Highways England is putting through.
At local authority level we have talked about the importance of industry – whether manufacturers or contractors - actually working with clients to give a clear understanding on all sides where the demands are, the economic pressures, but also where the opportunities are.
We can bring together high value projects that are likely to lever in money to support the asset and also to support local authorities as they go on their journey from Band One authorities to Band Three [ in the self-assessment process], so as an industry we really have to make a contribution to that to support our clients.
We need to support their understanding of what we do and support their understanding of what the outcomes are of using our materials. I think the industry is up for that. It is increasingly aware of its need to communicate with clients and help them.
Q How is the RSMA planning to tackle the skills shortage and are there still barriers between the public and private sector?
RSMA has identified the increasing need to share knowledge with the client and we have put into place a series of transitions within our own organisation to actually make sure we have a higher representational capacity.
Primarily as a trade association that is about representing our members' interests. Clearly there is coalescence between client interest and industry interests. I think issues a round a lack of trust [between public and private] are actually ebbing away.
We have had the faith and trust of clients for many years in the RSMA. You cannot be a member of RSMA unless you are externally quality assured and externally audited. It allows us to say to members you have to play with a straight bat, you have to have integrity.
In the past we have had individual issues of quality and we have actually been able to go to the contractor and say sorry but you are wrong. Equally we have been strong with clients when they have been wrong - where we have had non quality-assured contractors removed from contracts to protect our members' interests.
By working closely with clients we are bolstering our members interests and we are trying to drive quality up as well. You improve quality at the top by dramatically altering how quality is approached at the bottom of the market and that is all about driving members' interests.
We are changing as an organisation and there will be more people in our organisation in a representational capacity to support our members' interests and help advise clients on how they can achieve solid outcomes using our products and services. We are expanding other areas of our operation to be able to financially support that representation as well.
Q How worried are you that other firms will undercut your members and win contracts purely on price?
There is a very big danger that we end up with the bad old days of driving to the bottom of the market where the cheapest product or services looks like the best one, which it very rarely is. There is a very real risk when authorities want a quick outcome and are driven by price because they are left with no alternative. That is something we are looking very closely at.
Q How do you balance protecting quality while maintaining a free market?
The constitution of the RSMA sets out it out very clearly - we exist to promote the legitimate business interests of our member companies and like any other serious professional trade body we have no discussion on pricing. Nothing like that is allowed to take place in our meetings. That would be illegal quite frankly.
We are interested in driving legitimate business interests, which are about a quality product, a quality service and making sure that is regulated in a formal manner that is auditable.
The association is built on very strong foundations. We turn 40 next year. These quality controls have been built in from the last 20 years or so and have got progressively stronger. There is recognition among members that the integrity of the association is paramount. If it loses that integrity it calls into question the integrity of members as well.
Q. Has been the battle been won on the argument for high friction surfacing?
I think there is a long-term need for communication with local authorities. I don’t think the battle is won on high friction surfacing, I think we are just starting now to get a coherence message with coherent information that we can provide to clients. They know the systems work in terms of accident reduction. They have had concerns about value – some of those would appear to be unfounded. We now have the evidence base to go out to clients and say here is the reality. This is independent evidence, with all the back up information on first year rate of returns on projects etc.
So it’s time to revisit high friction surfacing. As a long-term solution and as part of an integrated project it could help bolster that journey from Band One up to Bands Two and Three. So there is maybe more value to high friction surfacing than there has ever been.