Feature – The new corporate manslaughter laws

If you read nothing else, read this …

• Proposed corporate manslaughter laws will complement existing laws, not replace them. • Under existing rules, you should apply the same risk assessment and risk reduction to work-related driving as you do to the rest of your business. • It doesn’t matter who owns the car when it is being driven for work, so look at employee-owned cars as well as company cars.

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Last year’s Queen’s Speech proposed new corporate manslaughter laws which could make organisations liable for deaths caused while employees are driving on business. However, "there is no draft bill as yet and no definition of ‘serious’ management failing" says David Young, a partner at law firm Eversheds. Any new legislation will stand alongside and complement existing health and safety laws but not replace them. Research by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve someone who is working at the time, which accounts for over 20 fatalities and 250 serious injuries every week.

While the human costs are painfully great, the financial cost is significant too. BT, for example, estimates that work-related road traffic accidents cost them £26m a year. These figures underline growing attention on the problems of road safety and business driving. "Forget about the new bill – it’s something for the future. Recognise your obligations under existing legislation," advises Andrew Cope, CEO of fleet management services provider Zenith. The HSE issued new guidance on the subject just over a year ago. Entitled Driving at work: managing work-related road safety it is considered the bible of best practice when writing a policy document and managing fleet safety. "The guidance said that you should treat work-related road safety as a part of your ordinary health and safety [processes]. You should include it in your risk assessment," says Evershed’s Young.

This means, for example, making sure that employees are driving a car that is fit for its purpose, and that is properly insured and maintained. Employers should also ensure staff understand company policy on things like the use of mobile phones and journey planning, and that they are properly trained and licensed for the type of driving they do. External review of policies and outsourcing administration are common. "One thing we’ve noticed is that a lot of companies have detailed policies but they don’t necessarily get drivers to sign them or confirm that they have read them," says Gavin Jones, accident services manager at Interleasing.

There is one "big black hole in all this," as Zenith’s Cope puts it. Ten years ago, most employees who ran up significant business mileage drove company cars but this is no longer the case. However, legislation doesn’t recognise any difference between someone driving their own car or a company car when it is being used at work. The same processes and checks need to be applied to people who have taken cash in lieu. While all this may increase red tape, there are real gains to be had. The HSE reports that best practice organisations achieve a significant reduction in accident statistics and vehicle damage costs.

This has a beneficial effect on insurance costs and driver behaviour outside of work. For once, there are comforting words from the lawyers: "If you have a reasonably integrated and responsible approach to health and safety and you’re doing risk assessments and have up-to-date policies, you have very little be afraid of [with regard to corporate manslaughter]," says Evershed’s Young.