Consulting » Health & safety – Easy does it

No company wants any of its executives or commercial vehicle drivers to be involved in road accidents, yet government figures show that company car drivers figure disproportionately in road accident statistics. There is a clear sense on the part of the government that companies should be doing more to stress the importance of safety among their fleet drivers.

In a worst-case scenario, company senior directors could find themselves facing a charge of corporate manslaughter if it can be reasonably argued that the company concerned did not have policies in place to encourage safe driving. The consequences, if the court finds that the company was in some way negligent in its responsibilities toward its drivers and/or other road users, could mean, in theory, a criminal conviction or prison term for directors.

While the government’s initial enthusiasm for threatening boards of directors with corporate manslaughter charges appears to have waned somewhat, company car and commercial fleets continue to constitute a risk area that needs to be managed properly. Directors should know that if the worst ever does happen, and one of their drivers is involved in a fatal accident, the company can stand up in court and prove it has done everything in its power to ensure that its drivers are well trained, its vehicles well maintained, and its policy directives for those who travel on business well articulated and without obvious holes or defects.

There are key areas in any company, where potentially lethal conflicts of interest can occur between different sets of policies, each desirable in and of itself. These conflicts need to be taken into account when companies are writing policy statements for the guidance of fleet drivers. For example, if a company attempts to maximise salesforce productivity by requiring its executives to fit a certain number of appointments into a day, it could be setting a potential trap for itself. If it has a policy of not paying hotel bills because it wants to control travel expenses, it could be forcing an executive to make an unduly long journey home after a hard day of meetings. If it emphasises the overriding importance of being on time for client meetings, that too can become a trap if an executive claims he/she was involved in an accident because they were rushing to a meeting out of fear for their jobs.

Andrew Cope, managing director of fleet leasing company Zenith, argues that writing a solid driver safety policy statement is not rocket science.

Companies need to exercise common sense and understand their responsibilities. Cope also believes that the issue of driver safety is often blown out of proportion. “We see a number of the health and safety consultancies and driver training companies talking up the issue of the safety and competence of the fleet driver. It is definitely a topic that has a lot of rhetoric flying about,” he says.

Despite this, Cope admits that in his role as managing director, with fleet drivers of his own, talk of corporate liability and possible criminal charges is worrying. “It definitely makes my ears prick up when I hear about corporate manslaughter. You think, hey, hold on a moment. Could that be me?” he says.

He argues that ultimately the issue of driver safety has to rest with the driver, not with the board. “There is a reasonable approach to safety and much of this has to do with the drivers. If they have passed all the tests, you are not asking them to do anything obviously daft, like drive all night, and you have given them a working vehicle in good condition, you have to realise you can’t be in the car with them. They have to take on that responsibility themselves,” he says.

According to Cope, Zenith spells out to its fleet drivers exactly what is expected of them when they are driving on company business. Its driver policy manual specifies that drivers should not drive more than a certain amount of time without taking a break, that they are forbidden from driving while under the influence of alcohol, and that they may not use a mobile phone while driving on company time.

“We set out what we think is proper practice and drivers are asked to sign off on it. If, despite everything you have done, they go to a business lunch and decide to drink a bottle of wine and then drive home, the responsibility for that act has to be on their own heads.

“It is surely a sad day when someone is out driving a one-and-a-half ton vehicle capable of doing 120 miles per hour and the responsibility for (their actions does not) reside with them but with some manager sitting behind a desk 100 miles away,” he says.

Kevin McNally, managing director of LeasePlan UK, reckons that UK companies are split into those that are aware of their obligations to contain driver-related risks and those that are not clear on many of the issues involved.

“Certainly, you need to be careful in the way you word policies. If you want to emphasise the importance of punctuality in attending client meetings, you also need to ensure that the policy makes clear that it is not to be achieved at the expense of courtesy to other road users and that it should not be used as an excuse for speeding,” he says.

The policy should have simple guidelines and principles that harmonise road safety with client satisfaction. For example, if executives driving to a meeting are delayed by traffic, they should find a safe place to stop and then advise their client by phone that they are running late.

“One thing we are careful about when we advise our clients on the drafting of driver policies (is that) we do not stray into turf that rightly belongs to the legal profession. They will need to pass all documents through their legal advisors and get their advice on the risk exposure profile of the company,” says. McNally.

One area where the issue of negligence might rightly rest with a company is responsibility for vehicle maintenance. Whether they outsource their fleet management or handle it internally, companies must ensure that all vehicles – even employee-owned cars – are “fit for purpose” when being driven on company business.

Driver safety, in other words, is a budget item, not just a policy statement. Paul Bellamy, general services manager at courier company DHL, says the company has had its own driver training officer since the late 1980s.

Each of DHL’s 40 depots has its own in-house driving instructor and Bellamy has a driver safety budget of some £100,000 a year. “Justifying this budget is not a simple matter of adding up productivity figures. You have to look at trends over a number of years. We believe that by analysing accidents and discovering more about the causes we have saved the company substantial sums,” he says.

Accident figures showed that drivers were significantly more likely to have an accident in their first six months with the company. Bellamy and his team concentrated resources on further training and auditing for new drivers and this figure has dropped dramatically, he says.

The figures also showed that many accidents happened while the vehicle was reversing, so DHL installed in-cab reverse warning sound systems in each vehicle. The system creates a steadily rising noise as the reversing vehicle approaches an object. This acts as an effective feedback mechanism.

As a result, accidents while driving in reverse have fallen sharply.

The consensus among fleet operators is that there is a great deal companies can do to establish sensible driver policies. Active accident management reduces the number of accidents, which means that companies with a high incidence of accidents need to shoulder some of the blame. The courts might not have found their way to this conclusion yet, but it is only a matter of time. Boards need to take heed.

Chemicals giant DuPont has one of the best health and safety records in the world and, according to Nick Hutton, chairman of the DuPont Safe Driving Committee, the company’s safety culture has been deliberately extended to the company car. The fact that DuPont has a safe driving committee – not exactly a standard committee in most corporates – is itself testimony to the thoroughness of its approach.

“The company’s safety culture goes back 200 years to its involvement with the manufacture of explosives. Hard experience taught DuPont executives that accidents were extremely costly. At the end of the day, the driver is a financial consideration and the issue of people travelling by car – be it their own or the company’s – on company business is an area of risk that needs to be controlled,” Hutton comments.

The DuPont example, according to Hutton, demonstrates that there is a good deal companies can do to control risk in this area. DuPont’s accident statistics are four times better than comparable national fleets. The accident level per vehicle per year at Dupont is about 0.13. Hutton reckons that DuPont’s nearest rival with the same kind of fleet size (about 600 vehicles) has a figure approaching 0.21, while the national average for all fleets is about 0.48. “Our drivers are about four times less likely to be involved in an accident than the national average,” he comments.

Even though all vehicle accidents are monitored and analysed closely, Hutton stresses that DuPont does not operate a blame culture. Hutton and his team record all the circumstances surrounding an accident in great detail and then hold workshops for drivers where they closely examine past accidents. By doing so the committee is able to share valuable lessons with its drivers.

DuPont also has an annual driver training scheme for anyone who drives on company business. Each driver is audited by an external professional trainer and also undergoes an internal audit with a trained DuPont staff member. The aim, Hutton says, is to help employees build on their strengths.

“We realise that there will be accidents in any substantial fleet, but we are determined to keep bearing down on accident figures, to drive them as close to zero as we can get them,” he concludes.