Fleet: car trouble

Finance departments are often used to dealing with columns of figures in red.
But what is unusual about fleet departments is that these numbers could be
written in blood rather than ink.

Put simply, driving is one of the most dangerous activities, in health and
safety terms, that employees undertake, yet it is often dismissed as no more
than an inconvenient break until the next appointment or meeting.

To put things in perspective, here are a few numbers.

In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, 3,221 people died
on Britain’s roads, a further 31,130 were seriously injured and another 246,489
received slight injuries ­ a grand total of 280,840 people, or 64 an hour, all
day every day.

About 183,858 of those injuries occurred in cars, either to drivers or
passengers, and official research by the Work-related Road Safety Task Group
suggests one-third of those involved were at work at the time. In fact,
according to safety experts at the Royal Society for the Prevention of
Accidents, car and van drivers who cover 25,000 miles a year as part of their
job are at about the same risk of being killed at work as workers in
construction and quarrying.

The government wants companies to meet their duty of care to drivers on the
road and is using a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is education and
explaining to companies, especially finance departments, that there is a
financial incentive for running a safe fleet.

As well as every accident costing the government money to clean up and
investigate (more than £1.3m in the case of a fatal accident), it costs
businesses money in lost working time, contracts, repairs and higher insurance

Experts warn of the iceberg effect, where the £1,000 cost of accident repair
is more like £5,000 when you include replacement cars, missed appointments and
so on. Safer drivers tend to look after their cars better too, so firms get
lower maintenance costs and reduced fuel bills ­ more than 10% in some cases.

To help fleets, the Department for Transport has published a lengthy document
called Driving at Work, which lists the key issues companies need to think about
when it comes to staff transport.

Its introduction warns: ‘You also have a responsibility to ensure that others
are not put at risk by your work-related driving activities.

‘You need to carry out an assessment of the risks to the health and safety of
your employees, while they are at work, and to other people who may be affected
by their work activities.’

Even if drivers have taken cash in place of a car, your company still has a
duty of care to them while on business, in particular by ensuring they are in a
vehicle that is fit for purpose. Transport minister Stephen Ladyman put it
simply by saying that if an employee is driving on business, then the employer
is responsible.

Despite this, a study of 1,000 motorists by the Institute of Advanced
Motorists earlier this year revealed that seven out of 10 said their employers
neither offered nor required medical check-ups, a driver risk assessment or
training on basic vehicle safety checks. And six out of 10 said they had not
been offered, or been required to take, a basic eyesight test.
And this is where the stick comes in. Companies are being warned they could feel
the full force of the law if they fail in their duty of care to employees and
there is an accident as a result.

The much heralded Corporate Manslaughter Bill, expected to become law later
this year, will make it much easier to prosecute companies whose procedures and
policies can be shown to have led to a employee’s death.

But laws already in place, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act and
other employment legislation, are allowing lawyers who represent staff injured
in accidents to sue employers for damages if they have not had effective advice
or training for road-based duties.

And then there is the police response to fatal accidents on the roads, which
always gets members of the board sitting up and taking notice. The police use
the Road Death Investigation Manual, which says that all road deaths should be
treated as unlawful killings until proved otherwise.

Saul Jeavons, head of investigations and risk management at the Transport
Research Laboratory, revealed at a recent conference that fleets investigated by
the police following fatal road crashes have described the process as

Jeavons recommends that fleets get a copy of the Road Death Investigation
Manual to ensure they are covered for all potential avenues of inquiry should
the worst happen.

But the best defence is to avoid accidents and crashes in the first place,
train staff to be safe and ensure the company has done everything it can to meet
its duty of care to drivers.

It might involve spending a bit more money on the fleet, but the long-term
savings in money and lives, should repay the investment many times over.

Further reading and advice
Driving at Work document that provides official guidance on employers’
responsibilities to drivers on the road
Link to the home of the Road Death Investigation Manual. Shows why it’s worth
paying for a safer fleet
Advice on running a safe fleet and the financial benefits  
Advice and information on running a car or van fleet  
Fleet operators’ association, where companies can share advice and look for
John Maslen is supplements and events editor at Fleet News

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