Assess employee behaviour before issuing company car

Employee behaviour can significantly increase fleet risk, so employers are learning that policies can help them target resources effectively to curb it, says Sarah Coles

Some people are accidents waiting to happen. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 3,695 people end up in hospital every year because of a trouser-related incident. And when something as innocuous as a pair of trousers holds such a threat it’s worth an organisation taking stock of the risks involved before giving an employee anything as perilous as a company car.

The most serious risk employees pose to themselves is letting the condition of their car go to pot. Company car drivers tend to consider repairs and maintenance to be the organisation’s problem. Tyres can wear to below the legal limit, or the car may drift past its service mileage or MOT date, and suddenly an employer has a series of illegal vehicles on the road. Part of preventing such incidents from occurring lies in the administration of a fleet. Keeping an eye on the paperwork is a must, so no vehicle has the chance to go beyond any legal limit.

Of course a car doesn’t have to be poorly maintained to become a death trap, and employers’ policies can also help to keep staff on the straight and narrow when it comes to picking a car in the first place.

If employers offer cash allowances, for example, it pays to set in place regulations that preclude staff from picking cars that are more likely to suffer problems. This could mean excluding cars over five years old, or those with more than 100 thousand miles on the clock. Policies can also exclude cars that have low safety ratings, or very fast vehicles.

Such exclusions may need to be communicated carefully to staff who have become used to a free choice of cars, but according to the Department for Transport’s report Road casualties Great Britain, drivers are ten times less likely to die in an accident in the safest models of car, so it’s worth considering.

Policies can also help mitigate the risks of irresponsible behaviour such as drinking and driving, or using a hand-held mobile phone in the car. Some employees, for example, will think little of having a couple of drinks at lunchtime without considering that this may still leave them over the limit when they drive home. So while there will always be people who fall foul of the rules, it’s more of a deterrent if they have been told directly that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

Policies can also make employees aware of the seriousness of a surprisingly-common malpractice. Some drivers close to receiving a ban now get a family member to take their points, or pay someone else to do it. Internet clubs have also sprung up where drivers can pay someone in a hospice £250 to take their points. These clubs are illegal and tend to be closed down as soon as they are identified, so organisations need an unequivocal policy dealing with anyone that is found guilty of this kind of fraud. James Sutherland, managing director of fleet safety organisation Peak Performance, says: “Organisations need to make it clear any such fraud would lead to instant dismissal.”

To have teeth, policies must be accompanied by rigorous checks. BT, which has one of the largest fleets in Europe, checks employees’ driving licences at least once every 12 months, and more often than that, if a heavily-endorsed driver is considered to be a particular risk, for example. The firm will use the checks to also identify if these individuals would benefit from driver training.

Spot checks can include a full vehicle inspection. Fleet specialist The Miles Consultancy offers one for £140 per car, checking everything from driving licences and valid example, if its windows are clean. Paul Jackson, managing director, says: “Doing the whole fleet might be a cost too far, but just doing five random inspections a month means everyone has the threat of an inspection at any time.”

Vital training tips
Employees’ driving ability should also be subject to regular checks. This can be carried out using technology, such as the system employed by T-Mobile (see previous box), or by training line managers on what to look out for. “We train line managers to go out on a normal day, so employees might think they are being observed at a meeting, whereas the manager is also looking at their driving,” says Jackson.

Observing drivers in this way won’t lead them to alter their driving patterns as they might in a more formal testing environment. BT has trained 3,000 of its line managers to identify drivers with potential problems, who can then be referred for further training.

But there’s only a certain amount that can be done with coercion, inspection and punishment. On a day-to-day basis, safety lies in the hands of employees themselves, so training can prove vital.

BT also identifies drivers who are particularly at risk, perhaps even before an accident happens. It runs an online driver assessment tool, which asks drivers about their driving patterns and attitudes. Those considered to be a risk are then put through one of a series of training programmes, either online or on the road, to improve their driving. So far, 45,000 drivers have gone through the programme, and BT has now extended the availability of the tool to employees’ families.

Peak Performance offers a similar tool with its fleet driver risk index, which scores employees on their situational risk, such as age and the number of miles they cover a year. It then asks a series of questions about their attitudes and scores them on aggression, thrill-seeking, fatigue resistance and coping strategies to come up with a behavioural risk profile. When combined, this gives an overall rating and identifies the areas a driver needs to target.

These are likely to include driving skills, but can also be widened to encompass behaviour such as drink driving, the use of mobile phones, driving while tired, or leaving valuables such as laptops in cars. Ensuring staff are aware of such issues is also in an employer’s interest. If staff are caught using a hand-held mobile phone, while driving they will incur penalties which were increased in February. Employers may also be held liable if they are found to have knowingly spoken to an employee while they are driving, or to have encouraged them to take calls at the wheel.

By identifying employees needs instead of going through a set training process, it ensures drivers don’t simply pay lip service to training and then slip back into old habits. However, in reality, as the course fades from memory, drivers forget many of the lessons learned.

“Lack of preparation can mean drivers take all kinds of risks. They don’t print out a map of where they are going so they end up getting lost and panicking, or they don’t leave enough time for the trip, and have to race the last five minutes. Three-out-of-ten drivers will also have paperwork on the passenger seat relating to the meeting they are going to. They say they’ll read it in traffic, but they’ll end up reading it on the motorway instead,” says Jackson.

So training cannot be a standalone solution to curb poor driving behaviour, but needs to slot into a wider strategy of policies and checks if the risk is to be reduced.

Case study: T-Mobile

T-Mobile in dash initiative

T-Mobile believes it is not enough to impose rules and checks on employees, it also works on addressing driver beliefs and attitudes to help keep them safe.

The firm’s policies cover document checking, effective accident management and the use of mobile phones when driving.

But it also thinks more strategically. Frank Arthur, HR supplier manager at T-Mobile UK, explains: “We also have in-car driver training, and an online driving risk assessment, both of which are aimed at fundamentally changing drivers’ attitude and behaviour.” This year, the company also introduced a technological solution in the form of dashboard gadgetry for its 200 highest-mileage, highest-risk business drivers.

“The technology produces a driver-specific, post-trip safety analysis for every trip undertaken, which is available online and is only accessible by the driver, who then uses it for self assessment and critical analysis. We have seen a shift in the improvement of both drivers’ behaviour and overall safety in this group.” says Arthur.

Research findings

  • The proportion of organisations that place staff driving on business at the top of their health and safety agenda now stands at 82%, according to Employee Benefits Fleet research 2007.
  • But last year’s Kwik-Fit Fleet driver survey found drivers still take needless risks. One-in-five fleet drivers, for example, never check tyre pressure and tread, one-in-five never checks oil or water levels, while half have never read their car manual. And many employers aren’t pushing the agenda either. Two-in-three don’t remind employees when their car is due for a service, while three-in-four drivers say they haven’t had any training since they passed their test. A further one-in-three drivers has never had their licence checked by their employer.