Do ECOP schemes promote unsafe car choice?

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The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) rates new cars on a range of safety factors, such as seat belt reminders and the seriousness of head injuries sustained in a collision.

Restricting an employee car ownership plan (Ecop) driver to a limited range of cars on safety grounds contradicts the concept of choice that this type of scheme is built on.

By advising rather than instructing employees to look for Euro NCAP-rated cars, an Ecop can still offer staff freedom of choice.

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The health and safety debate around the suitability of cars taken under employee car ownership plans (Ecops) roars on. While employers want to offer staff the freedom of choice that Ecops bring, there is a concern that employees may not always choose the safest vehicles.

One way that organisations can claw back some control of Ecops is to issue rules around the type of vehicle that can be chosen. One such requirement could be for the vehicle to have achieved a certain rating on the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP).This tests how different makes and models of cars are affected in a crash, measuring the impact that this will have on the driver and passengers, and scoring each car with stars.

Robert Kingdom, head of marketing at automotive specialist Masterlease, says: "The Euro NCAP is very worthy. It has undoubtedly made car manufacturers sit up and acknowledge health and safety in a [new] way."

Yet, for some, there is no justification for placing restrictions on a scheme that was intended to create a freedom of choice for drivers, and to take away some of the hassles for employers that exist in a traditional company car scheme.

Stewart Whyte, director and membership secretary at the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO), says: "It is most unusual for organisations to bring in Euro NCAP ratings to Ecops because it absolutely contradicts itself. The fundamental attraction of an Ecop is that employers can say ‘here’s GBP;500 a month and 40p a mile, now leave me alone’."

But others believe that limiting employees’ choice to Euro NCAP-tested cars can go much further towards ensuring a certain level of health and safety for drivers. Richard Schooling, commercial director at fleet provider Alphabet, says: "It is a way to ensure safety. I think employers are on the good side of right by showing [duty of] care in terms of the vehicle selection that staff have."

One way to keep everyone happy is to strike a balance, whereby employers merely ask their Ecop drivers to consider the Euro NCAP ratings when selecting a car but do not impose restrictions on choice. If used in this way, the Ecop is still free to operate as intended, while employers may be seen to be fulfiling a degree of health and safety responsibilities."[Restrictions are] very difficult to enforce anyway. People get very sensitive about their benefits when you try to dictate the way in which their cash is spent," admits Kingdom.

One organisation which uses the Euro NCAP rating system is fast-food company McDonald’s where Ecop drivers are advised to take note of the ratings, but are not forced to curtail their choice to the safest vehicles.

Adam Thompson, in McDonald’s fleet management team, explains: "We encourage our drivers to look at the Euro NCAP ratings, although they have total autonomy. It is up to them whether they take heed of what we say.

"It would be unfair to impose our opinion on people, but instead [we] extend advice on which vehicles would be the best to choose.