Judgement highlights importance of duty of care for fleets

A landmark ruling in June saw a Cambridge-based catering company fined £30,000 after an employee died behind the wheel of a car after working 76 hours over four days. As a result, more pressure than ever is being placed on fleet managers to secure an adequate duty of care for their drivers. In addition, the government’s proposals to tighten the rules around employers’ liability in corporate manslaughter cases, and amendments to the police’s Road Death Investigation Manual will place employers under greater scrutiny following accidents.

Both announced in July, these have furthered the need for fleet managers to ensure driver safety. Driver training is one way employers can ensure staff are well educated about safe driving. Many schemes, for example, focus on the amount of time employees should spend behind the wheel at any one stretch. John Hesketh, partner at law firm Coleman-ctts Solicitors, explains: "Sometimes, employees push themselves too far and employers must protect them against this, especially when they are spending time in a company vehicle."

Having clear guidelines, and ensuring drivers are aware that the policies exist can also help to protect them from harm. Diarmuid Fahy, fleet risk manager at ING Car Lease, says: "As a fleet manager, you can’t be in the car with the driver all day long, but the organisation should be doing everything possible to encourage good driver behaviour." Specifically, policies should contain guidelines around the number of hours and miles staff can cover each day. Lorraine Farnon, divisional vice president and sales director at National Car Rental, explains: "A policy must be clear on both hours and miles. You can drive in central London for hours and not actually move anywhere."

Fleet managers are also in agreement that employers should take a certain amount of responsibility when it comes to the hours staff spend behind the wheel. Lynne Bundle, fleet manager at Pfizer, explains: "Although it is not legislated, we have a duty to ensure drivers are not overworked or on the road for so many hours [as there is a risk] they’ll become exhausted and fall asleep at the wheel." For some more conscientious fleet managers, however, re-writing a policy may not be enough to cover their backs. Satellite navigation systems, for example, can allow employers to monitor the number of hours worked and the distance each driver is travelling. "It must be explained properly first of all, and this means as a safety tool rather than ‘big brother’, then it can be a great asset," says Hesketh.