Its Not My Car


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I get asked to visit companies and diagnose why their behavioral safety program has “lost steam” or never got off the ground to begin with.  Inevitably, I find the whole program is run by the safety department and few anointed safety enthusiasts who do the observations or supervisors, who have observations cards to complete on top of mounds of other paperwork. Employee involvement is nonexistent.   This may seem the most reliable way to do behavioral safety, but it’s creating an undesirable effect inside of the operation. 

I got a story for you that will make this point. 

I was in a rush.  My flight was an hour late arriving in Chicago and I had a 40-minute drive to get to a safety speech I was giving that was an hour away. And, I still had to pick up my rental car - so I was stressing as I got off the huge rental car company shuttle bus.  With rental papers in hand I found the car on the lot, put on my safety belt and headed for the exit. 

This was no easy task.  The massive labyrinth of a parking lot was segmented with roads and I had to trust that the “exit à” signs would get me out to civilization.  After a number of turns I finally drove up to a “T” intersection. The exit booth was to the right of me and beyond that was freedom.  I eased into the right lane to yield and turn right.  But I had to stop because one of those huge airport shuttle buses (scientific name TryceraBus) covered with the rental car company’s logo had the right of way as it passed ahead of me toward the exit.

While I was waiting for this TryceraBus to pass, another identical  TryceraBus drove right up beside me… and I mean right beside my driver’s window.  I literally could have rolled down the window and pat the axel of the 4’ diameter wheel of this thing.  It was unnerving.  I remember thinking to myself “I hope he sees me… he does this all the time”.

The first bus passed and the way was now open to proceed. I was taking my foot off of the brake when I heard the low belching of the bus next to me.  Out of the side of my eye I notice TryceraBus’ big wheel turn toward me and start turning.  The tire began crushing into the car I was in! It first destroyed the side mirror in an impressive explosion of glass.  The tire’s next destination was the body of the car, which started crushing just as easily.

I honked and waved my arms at the oblivious driver who I could see through the glass door panels.  He looked at me with wide eyes and stopped in time to prevent further damage.

Now… do you think I was pissed off?


No, It was not my car!

Startled, yes; a bit shaken, yes; but I wasn’t in any real danger.


The fact is that it was their car,

in their parking lot,

being crushed by their bus. 

To be honest with you… I thought it was kinda cool.  How many times do you get to sit in a car being slowly crushed?  I then looked at the despondent driver and thought “this is going to suck for you” and finally smiled at the realization that I may get an upgrade to a luxury rental for the inconvenience (I did!).


When employees are not active participants in the safety program, involved in its design, ongoing implementation, and evaluation in some way, well, frankly… it’s not their car.  When an employee gets hurt or disciplined you often hear employees say:

It was THEIR car equipment,

Involving THEIR parking lot process,

being managed by THEIR bus people. 

No “WE” in sight.

So when a management-led safety program starts to derail, through lack of budget, disappearing leadership support, or just plain complacency, employees may think its kinda cool (yes, the same people the program was designed to help!).  Rumors fly, observation cards get sabotaged (see the Anatomy of Pencil Whipping blog post) and become a platform for personal gripes, jokes and ribbing will be heard… “told ya so”… “flavor of the month.”  In the end, employees (supervisors and leaders too) may actually enjoy seeing it get crushed.

Back to the rental car lot… what if I was in my car and a bus started crushing the side of MY car? Would I be pissed!  Darn toot’n I would be.

I often think about what I would have done if I were in my own car that day on the rental car lot and a bus pulled up that close to me.  I imagine that instead of simply assuming that the driver of the bus had seen me, I would have perhaps honked and tried to get his attention.  We do that kind of action to protect the things we value.

It’s the same with safety programs and its based on a straightforward psychological principle that Gordon Allport (1937) talked about 70 years ago; what Deci and Ryan (1985) famously called “Self Determination” in the social psychology literature.  It’s a concept that Scott Geller (2002) wrote about in his epic book, The Participation Factor, and a concept I’ve researched for two decades and discussed in my own book (Ludwig & Geller, 2000). Modern Management Psychology research cites data on “Engagement” that has been shown to correlate highly with safety outcomes (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002; Ludwig & Frazier, 2012). 

Sun Tzu talked about the same principle in his epic book, Art of War, written over 2000 years ago.  In it, he tells his readers the way to defeat your enemy most effectively is not by force of arms -  instead, it is through inviting them to take part in your conquests.  They will not destroy what they helped build (see The Rule Mill blog posting)

Consider the pride of ownership an employee-owned safety program.  First, lets note something important.  This does not mean turning over your entire safety programming over to employees.  There is always a need for professional safety competencies and management coordination.  I own my car but I didn’t engineer it (I’m not that smart), I didn’t build it (I’m not that resourceful) and I don’t repair it (I’m not that skilled).  But I did pick the make and model along with the color and accessories, I maintain it, and I choose how to use it.

Employees don’t have to engineer, build, and keep track of your safety systems.  They just need to do things like name it, develop the content (e.g., the behaviors that go on observation cards), customize the process so it make sense “on the ground”, review the data for risks and share the trends, and suggest interventions to reduce risk and hazards.

Employees are right people to involve in this way because they know firsthand where hazards exist, where at-risk behaviors occur, and where attitudes affect safe work practices. 

Case in point: Marathon Petroleum Company LP, Michigan Refining Division, invited a colleague and I to their Detroit site to understand why they have one of the best-in-practice behavioral safety programs according to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (you can read about them at  We were met at the gate by Radwan Dagher, an hourly employee.  Once there we interviewed members of their Circle of Safety (COS) team… all employees.  We saw how they managed their program, how they led a large number of contractor safety representatives, how they used their data to shape training, and how they interacted with site leadership to direct attention and resources.  It was there I saw true ownership.

This was a Teamsters Union workforce.  While some unions advise against Behavioral Safety to their members, this outpost of the Teamsters were not only advocates, they were OWNING it. 

It was their car and if anything threatens it they get pissed.  The evidence was there. When anything threatened the program or the safety of the workforce (like new construction that brought hundreds of contractors on-site) the COS teamed with management to bring to bear resources and hundreds of hours of effort to protect and succeed together.  It was their car so they proactively made it work, they worked with leaders to grow it, and they waxed it up real well because they were proud.

Just like a fine Detroit-made Mustang!

Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a partner in Praxis2 and serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at



References cited:

Allport, G. W. (1937). The functional autonomy of motives. American Journal of Psychology, 50, 141–156.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Geller, E. S. (2002). The participation factor: How to increase involvement in occupational safety. Des Plaines, IL: American Society of Safety Engineers.

Ludwig, T.D., & Geller, E.S. (2000). Intervening to Improve the Safety of Delivery Drivers: A Systematic Behavioral Approach.  Monograph.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 19, 1-124.

Ludwig, T.D., & Frazier, C.B. (2012).  Employee Engagement and Organizational Behavior Management.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 32 (1), 75-82.

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268–279.


Frank Fox

Absolutely loved the analogies, and it was pure reality. Yes we will need safety professionals, but the behavior I always dreamed of was the employees having the passion to own and grow safety. Who better to take care of a house but the owners, certainly not a baby sitter or renters. 
I think the union owning safety was excellent, because many of them do have a great deal of pride. Some unions are broken, but there are still some good examples. 
Many times I have seen the "it's not my car" attitude from hourly and salary. They grow weary of being hammered in audits, and asking people to do more than what they are used to. They don't like participating in safety meetings, they could have finished that hunting story or fishing story in the break room. It's a victory to many if safety folks get egg on their face. They must trust and respect you, or it will always be an uphill battle, all the way. 

Of all of the links we get asked to read, this was worth my time. Thanks, encore, encore.


Jonathan Tavill

I enjoyed reading this article enormously and the analogy pretty accurate. I have been in the same position watching my own car slowly being bent and buckled by a HGV while sat inside (although honking was the last thing on my mind I have to say;-) ). Ownership is the greatest and most important hurdle (also for environmental awareness). With ownership it is possible to evoke culture change.


Paul Shapiro

Definitely very intetesting. I too have seen the train wreck coming a few times and it is not fun. Mine worked because I did have good relations with my field folks, it was upper management that was way out of touch and set unrealistic goals across broad spectrums. It was impossible to meet the goals within the desired time frame without significant expense which is where the wheels started to come off. Great article, it would be nice to see more like it.


stanley babila

You must make it your car if your striving for excellence



Hi Tim totally agree -to get the car started you need a driver, a route , and an idea of the mechanics or know where to get it fixed -sadly some companies today will give you the car and say get on with it and there is lots to do -its about people , place , process and management leadership and culture -that need to be changed my strap line is GOING FORWARD -else the blame culture kicks in which is like the wrong fuel best John


Steve Delp

It's been my experience that the Safety Department is often times most resistant to an employee driven/owned safety process. Probably because they can't envision a role for themselves in this sort of environment - even though a most productive and rewarding role awaits them. Either that or they are happy with the Fireman/Superman role they now play.


Douglas Dennis

BBS when implemented is like a shiny new diamond everyone wants one! Once the newness has worn and the shine turns into a light twinkle the interest in BBS goes to the way side. This is why you make BBS a nugget that everyone wants and you feed your employees at a slow rate to keep interest up and that want in the forefront.


Kenneth Rogus

Tim - Love your story.....I hope you don't mind if I share it with co-workers. Here is a shared experience for you to build on your story. When I work with others (or I'm in the interview mode for hiring) it's always interesting to ask that person to drive me to the site or lunch or back to the office. You can find-out a lot by OBSERVING how people keep their vehicle. Interesting side bar - you probably keep & treat your rental car (your habits) the same way you treat your own personal vehicle. These habits transfer to company machinery, equipment, and instrumentation owned by the company.Thanks for sharing a great story.


Martin Hippsley

Tim I would go further if management is not driving the thing forward at the outset it won't start, No matter what you do to change a workers mind or attitude to health and safety and the risks within his work and or workplace. 
It cant be changed until management show they are in agreement with and actually want the change most workers work they way they do because that is how management have told them or implied that the way they want it done, 
to get meaningful change management have to show they (a) want this change and (b) fully support it, at the end of the day it may not be the managements car but it is their ball and its a case of play our way or don't play, this means the onus is or should be on the management to play the safe way


John C Brown

Exceptionally well done bringing real life to the classroom. All of us can relate and find inspiration in your style. Crisp, Clear and Real. Kudos!


Erik Ingersoll

Well written Tim! As a safety professional who actually works in the car rental industry, I found your conclusions to be spot on and your analogies seemed a little more like "reality" to me! I've shared your link with some of my industry peers and leadership and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that your accident did NOT happen at one of our brands. Again, well done.


Dean Lailey MSO

Buy in has always been key, how to achieve it has always been elusive. There is no simple answer because everyone is different. The safety guy or gal has to connect - be supremely patient and find not only the key individual but the key to THAT individual which is different in every case ( and lots of keys are needed) in my humble opinion


Lisa Milne

This is very good. In coming from a background where I created and implemented a safety program/s from the ground up I often found some of my best results came from starting from the bottom up rather than the top down. When you get collective understanding and employees asking for nothing less from their Management teams, it really makes it hard for managers to say no.


Dennis Hoaglin

The site leader has to be enthusiastic about the program and lead by sharing his enthusiasm. The three killers of behavior based safety: 1) Withdrawal of leader support; 2) Disciplinary actions arising from behavioral observations; and 3) Perception on the shop floor that nothing of value comes from observations. We have to keep asking observers to dig deeper to find value in their observations. Don't walk away until you feel that you've been helpful either by finding something to fix, a way to make safe choices more convenient or simply reinforcing safe behaviors with sincere praise. The perception of value is paramount and, as you point out, Tim, you'll never get it if owner ship of the program is vested solely in the safety department.


Alan Langstone

Great article Tim.

Many of the answers to our problems, not just safety, lay with the job experts (the employees), the skills we need are the ones to extract the information and the knowledge to know how to guide them into using it.

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