Look after your drivers

A tougher legal climate for company cars imposes a duty of care on both the fleet manager and the employee. How should this be managed?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Here's a couple of statistics that will probably worry you. In its 2006 report The Future of Motoring, the RAC found that 84% of the drivers it interviewed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: 'I consider myself to be a law-abiding driver.' But then 19% admitted occasionally driving over the legal alcohol limit. This means that 3% of drivers think they're motoring saints even though they sometimes actually drive under the influence.

Among company car drivers, the percentage rises to 32%, making the hypocritical overlap 16%. Board directors take note: this could mean that perhaps one in five of your staff claims to be a stickler while actually being a liability. If you're responsible for such individuals, you should be alarmed, especially as business travel in the UK accounts for a third of the national travel total.

The whole issue of a duty of care towards employees using motor vehicles for company business generally falls to a company's fleet manager to consider and act upon. This has added a tricky further dimension to their main tasks of allotting budget spend wisely, shepherding the company's transport hardware, and negotiating with other departments - notably, human resources - to keep staff happy.

The trouble is, in motoring terms this duty of care has no legal definition but is a mere buzz-phrase covering the extension of the guidelines issued by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to help protect staff in the workplace. For company car drivers, the workplace extends to, say, the M4, where there are rather more variables than the casual stroll from desk to water cooler. The state of the car and its fitness for purpose is one, fairly straightforward, issue; but is the driver drunk or drugged, routinely too tired to concentrate, harbouring a secret motoring conviction, or partial to chatting on the mobile at the wheel?

Stewart Whyte, director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators (Acfo), fully recognises the burden of care that falls on the fleet manager: 'Overall, it's a good thing; I take road safety very, very seriously, and my associates take it very, very seriously,' he says. 'Teaching drivers to drive better is good for a caring and sharing employer to do. And a mechanism to do this is fine. But none of that justifies hysteria. There's now a growing debate about how far you should go. A weekly check on licences, for example, is ridiculous, and the people who urge this kind of thing most are often those - the legal fraternity, for example, or "ambulance-chasing" claims companies - with vested interests. You need to resist scaremongering.'

Whyte says there must be a balance between good business sense on the one hand and a thorough risk assessment on the other. 'In my opinion, you're duty-bound to do a risk assessment for best or good practice under HSE principles, because using the roads is hazardous,' he says. 'You can't buy it in; you need to do a risk assessment yourself, because the only thing that matters is the appropriateness of the driver training to your organisation.

'You can still come to the conclusion that the risk is negligible for, say, a small fleet of Ford Focuses driven sparingly by middle-aged academic researchers. They won't need the same training as a group of teenage, moped-riding delivery people. A hotshot executive, for example, may have the ability to command a Porsche, but might not have the ability to drive it. Appropriateness is everything.'

Once risk has been assessed, several packages are available that can assist in administering the duty of care to company car drivers. One such, the Lex Fleetrisk Duty Of Care programme, offers three tiers of compliance help, from basic licence-checking to a comprehensive framework of driver training, vehicle monitoring and health checks to establish a legally watertight audit trail.

Getting employees to understand what they're taking on when driving on company business is crucial. Magazine distribution firm Frontline, for example, engaged consultants Emmerson Hill to draft easy-to-understand 'car policy guidelines' that all its drivers were obliged to read, absorb and sign.

As well as everyday issues such as car entitlement, fuel cards and reporting accident damage, it includes simple guidelines on safe driving and minimising risks. The employee's signature at the bottom means they've agreed not to drive for more than two hours without a break, or while inebriated or drugged, and not to operate mobile phones at all during driving.

It's plain speaking, and it needs to be. As Lloyds TSB Autolease operations director David Kershaw observes: 'If a company car driver is in an accident, the first thing the police would want to know is if they were on the phone. Even if they were on hands-free, the police would probably penalise.'

Clarity of rules is vital today in an era where the traditional structure of company car allocation has been fragmented, as employees can now opt to buy and use their own cars for business duties. The fleet manager needs to be assured that the employee's own motor is as roadworthy as any company-owned car when it's used on company time, money and fuel, because the duty-of-care responsibilities are the same. The Frontline policy, for instance, specifically forbids any employee from using his or her car for company work if it's more than five years old. Meanwhile, rental firm Avis says that 10% of employers now rent a car for occasional staff use, rather than allowing them to use their own, because the condition of the car is assured and the daily price fixed. Inchcape Fleet Solutions now has 300 Avis long-term rental cars across the UK.

Fleet managers could go further, perhaps using deeper science to get the point across. Ergonomics is one area where there can be no shortcuts, because it is impossible to design the perfect driving position: fatigue sets in after 15 minutes as the heart rate slows and muscles ache, while your pelvis must support the 70% of body weight that is above the hips. According to leading ergonomist Tina Worthy, there is only one solution: 'More breaks, more often. Stopping every hour to get more oxygen in your body by moving around really helps.'

And for those motivated by the body-as-temple principle, what to have at the motorway services when knackeredness sets in? Former NHS nutrition expert Dell Stanford states the relative caffeine content of common stimulant drinks: a 200ml cup of tea has 40mg of caffeine, coffee has 80mg, hot chocolate 1-8mg and cola drinks 7-43mg, while Red Bull has 80mg per 250ml can. Her optimum suggestion is a caffe latte with skimmed milk, which provides caffeine and, from its milk, energy and calcium without the sugary downside of fizzy drinks. A few squares of chocolate with a high cocoa content also raise feelgood serotonin levels.

There are few company car drivers who wouldn't benefit from additional mental acuity on the road. Drive & Survive is one of the UK's longest-established and largest driver-training organisations. It offers everything from online modules providing a brush-up on specific issues to hands-on defensive driving courses.

'Funnily enough, skills-based training doesn't have great relevance to ordinary motorists,' says Steve Johnson, spokesman at Drive & Survive. 'Defensive driving is much more about raising awareness, and getting people to take driving seriously. It is impossible to concentrate absolutely 100% on driving but the average concentration level is just 25%, as people daydream or think about relationship problems or whatever. We work on raising that level because, after all, they are driving a one-ton killing machine.

'At the other end of the scale, one of our e-learning modules looks at roundabouts and junctions, to get people to think about their reactions at these high-risk points. Many drivers have appalling lane discipline, and we find it's by no means only the younger ones.'

The fleet manager should not let a responsible holistic approach be subsumed by worry. In an accident, a driver is a driver first and an employee second, because all drivers are obliged to abide by the Highway Code at all times.

'Employees also have a duty to comply,' says Acfo's Whyte, whose association members control 650,000 vehicles, about a sixth of all company-run vehicles on UK roads. 'They are just as bound by responsibility as employers.'

One driver of a van caused a fatal accident while talking on his mobile - a fact proved by phone records. The fleet manager had covered all the bases, with the correct policy documents and signatures in place, but was still taken through the gruellingly stressful procedure of a court case where compensation was sought. In the end, the driver was jailed for four years and his employer completely exonerated because the man had broken the rules despite being under the company's duty of care.

'The real issue here,' says Whyte, 'is that 60% of fleets in Britain are fairly well run, but 30% are persistent violators of regulations and don't adhere to best practice - a dreadful proportion, which needs to improve.

'The other 10%? Well, they're the top ones, world-class in the way they set standards,' he adds. 'Too often, these companies are targeted for a lack of care and that's not right.'

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