The government has finally woken up to the fact that the company car has become a de facto office for many mobile executives and sales teams. This being so, it seems only logical to extend the Health and Safety Executive’s remit from the workplace to include the company car.
This is part of the logic behind a consultative paper, The Work Related Road Safety Task Group*, which is sponsored by the HSE. The period for responses from interested parties ends on 21 May, and while there is as yet no date set for legislation, it seems probable that the day is approaching when company officials can expect HSE inspectors to take as much interest in their fleet and driver safety policies as they currently do in safety standards for factories and offices.
The white paper starts with the stark fact that each day of the year in this country ten people on average die on our roads and a further 100 are seriously injured in road traffic accidents. Many of these victims are either drivers or passengers in company cars. Therefore, the paper argues, many accidents could be avoided if corporates took a more diligent approach to managing risk or ensured that their drivers were trained to drive better. The central proposal is that “employers should be encouraged in a number of ways to manage at-work road risk more effectively”.
Spencer King, communications manager at fleet operator Velo argues that companies face pressure to treat the car as an extension of the office from many directions. The first he points out is that we live in an increasingly litigious world and boards are perpetually at risk of being sued by any parties to an accident involving their fleet drivers. “Good risk management is a vital part of any cost-control strategy. With company car fleets, risk management means far more than simply trying to manage the costs associated with day-to-day accidents efficiently,” he says.
King argues that even before the HSE gets its hands on the corporate fleet, the courts are likely to look seriously at the possibility of finding companies negligent when one of their employees is involved in a car accident.
If the court is not happy with all aspects of a company’s fleet policies, the officials deemed responsible, who may well include the FD and the company secretary, could find themselves facing serious charges.
“The Home Office proposes revisiting the law on involuntary manslaughter, for example, with the idea of bringing in a new offence of corporate killing, plus three further offences to deal with death caused through a company’s recklessness or carelessness,” says King.
An obvious point that the courts will examine will be whether a company has policies in place dictating the maximum number of hours people should drive before they take a break. They will also look at whether the driver involved in an accident has been put under undue pressure to reach a certain destination, or attend a particular meeting at a distant location, in what may be deemed an unreasonable time frame. FDs need to bear in mind that what looks reasonable in everyday life may not appear so sensible once matters have been thoroughly dissected by an ace legal team. Once a speed-related accident has taken place, the question: “Should Bloggs not have been given more time to reach his or her meeting?”, with its clear implication of negligence, could be very hard to refute.
The maintenance schedule of vehicles involved in accidents is also likely to come under close scrutiny. Peter Knights, communications manager at Lex Vehicle Leasing, argues that an ideal defence for companies in such circumstances is to have outsourced the entire fleet maintenance task to an organisation committed to maintaining the car to the manufacturer’s specifications. “We adhere strictly to the manufacturer’s guidelines, plus we also maintain a profile of each vehicle, which shows if there is any undue wear and tear,” he says.
King advises companies to make use of statistical claims analysis to ensure that they understand any patterns that might be developing around vehicle accidents. “A thorough analysis of trends can highlight unexpected causes of accidents. For example, if you find that accidents tend to occur at one time of the day, it may be that shift patterns are to blame,” he says.
Companies should also consider adding telematics into their analysis of fleet usage, adds King. “One thing that makes the risks associated with operating a fleet so fundamentally difficult to control is that drivers and vehicles are often off-site. One relatively recent solution to this problem is in-car telematics, so-called ‘black box’ technology. This can provide a host of management information about when cars are used, distances driven at a stretch and so on,” he says.
Jianni Geras, head of group marketing at LeasePlan, reckons that his company makes a concerted effort, when providing company cars, to help its customers gain awareness of the need for proper driver safety policies and risk management controls. “Compensation claims are increasingly a part of all aspects of corporate life, and companies have to consider their liability very carefully. Fleet issues can be viewed as another instance; companies need to see that they are protected against this kind of risk. Equally, companies should, as good corporate citizens, take the safety of their drivers very seriously,” he says.
Fleet providers can assist companies by contributing driver safety information to the corporate intranet. Lease Plan, Geras points out, will maintain a high-profile driver safety section accessible by all company employees on the client company’s intranet. “We use this to remind drivers constantly of driver safety issues. Also, we are sponsoring a driver safety booklet that will be distributed to our customers,” he says.
There is a lot a company can do to demonstrate that they take driver safety seriously. “If staff are not used to driving long distances you need to be aware of this. You need to ask: does this driver have sufficient training, should we be planning alternative travel arrangements. In addition, fleet managers need to implement driver training and refresher training courses,” he says.
One company that has seen spectacular results from following a consistent policy of putting all employees with cars through formal driver training courses is DuPont. Dr Mark Fey is UK safe-driving coordinator at the company.
He points out that the accident statistics facing fleet operators do not make comfortable reading. “We have 450 cars in our fleet. Typically, a fleet of this size can expect to have between 25% and 40% of its vehicles involved in an accident of one type or another in a year, ranging from a minor bumper clash to a serious road accident. Through a sustained and concerted effort at promoting driver skills and cultivating a safety-first attitude, we have reduced that figure to 6%,” he says.
The company outsources its driver training to a third party firm, Drive and Survive, which offers the company’s executives everything from refresher courses to defensive and advanced driving skills. “We make places on these courses available to all company car drivers automatically. We also extend the courses to frequent drivers who use their own cars, and make shorter courses available to occasional drivers,” Fey says.
The logic behind DuPont’s thinking is that driving is inherently dangerous, and many benefits flow from taking steps to prevent injuries to employees.
Apart from being the decent thing to do, it also saves the company money by cutting down on accident-related time off work.
The message to corporates is clear. Both from the standpoint of containing risk and from the moral requirement to be a good corporate citizen, fleet and driver safety has to be a priority. As wireless data becomes more important, staff are going to become ever more mobile and the company car is going to be connected to the office as never before. Telematics and global positioning will probably come as standard, so the company will know where, why and for how long its employees have been on the road.
Being unprepared for the dangers associated with driving is going to be as untenable for corporates in the future as it is to operate unsafe premises today. Remember, HSE is coming your way.
* The Work Related Road Safety Task Group is downloadable from the HSE web site, www.hse.gov.uk.