In a year of major challenges for the industry, the Fleet News Fleet Panel set the tone for the year with a gloomy prediction for the future.
In the first weeks of 2003, fleet executives in the panel were asked: 'Considering the number of challenges facing fleet decision-makers over the next year, do you expect your task to become more difficult?'
An overwhelming 84% said 'yes' and it wasn't long before their concerns were justified as they struggled to register their vehicle details on a new insurance database, cope with new legislation on V5 documents and prepare for the introduction of a new tax regime covering free fuel for private mileage and changes to Block Exemption.
Environmental issues have been at the heart of fleet issues over the past 12 months and with new hybrid models coming to the market during the year, fleets were asked: 'Would you consider hybrids as a viable alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles if they were available from most manufacturers?'
In this case, 80% supported the idea, but their backing for new technology to help the environment didn't stretch to other alternatively-fuelled vehicles.
As the year wore on and concerns about the future tax treatment of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) grew, the panel was asked: 'Do you think LPG has a viable future on your fleet?'
Only 10% said 'yes' in a survey carried out just weeks before Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown signalled that financial support to keep LPG prices down was being reduced to bring it in line with other alternative fuels.
On another taxation issue, fleets were asked whether they agreed with the Government's van tax shake-up, which could see drivers charged more for driving older or more polluting models, even though they have little choice in what they drive. Despite the concerns, 68% of fleets agreed with the changes.
Transport issues have loomed large throughout the year and speed has been a major part of the debate. Members of the panel were divided when they were asked if they agreed with a decision by the Italian government to increase the speed limit on motorways to 80mph.
Although the majority of fleets – 58% – agreed with the idea, there was still a sizeable minority that was against any such move.
Congestion has been a major thorn in the side of fleet operators during the year and a staggering 90% said in our survey in August that increasing levels of congestion on Britain's roads were costing their businesses money.
But the dominating factor throughout the year has been health and safety, particularly with the publication of guidance on at-work road safety by the Health and Safety Executive.
Despite repeated warnings that fleet decision-makers could face jail if they fail in their duty of care to drivers, just 50% admitted to having seen the guidance in October, a month after it was published.
However, more headway has been made on the issue of mobile phones, with 96% saying they had a written policy in place by the time new legislation banning the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving was introduced. This had increased from just 67% in July.
But willingness to meet health and safety requirements only stretches so far, as the panel showed when asked if it would allow drivers to hand back cars that were causing them chronic back pain.
Just 35% said it would be possible, with many saying they would have to be backed up with medical proof that the problem was related to the car.
Also during the year, employers were told they should introduce a ban on the use of all private cars for business purposes in a bid to take control of staff health and safety on the road by a leading industry expert.
Suggested alternatives included pool cars, rental cars or even simply borrowing a colleague's company car. Although many employers dismiss the idea of renting, calculations carried out by Bank of Scotland Vehicle Management reveal rental is often cheaper than reimbursing drivers for business mileage in a private car.
For example, a driver making a 400-mile trip in their own car, being reimbursed at 40 pence per mile, would cost the employer £160, whereas hiring a car would cost £66 including fuel, a saving of nearly £100.
But when the fleet panel was asked if it was possible to introduce a total ban on the use of privately-owned cars on business, 68% said 'No'.
With the number of challenges increasing, it has become clear that running a fleet is not a job that can be done without formal training if the maximum savings are to be made.
And fleets agreed during our Get Trained campaign, with 96% saying they thought that employers should provide more support to employees with responsibility for fleets.