Fleet News

Fleet safety: Legal minefield for fleets

Understanding legislation might be a bit like trying to eat a plate of rice with a toothpick but, faced with the threat of prosecution, you soon get pretty good at it.

Despite all the warnings about ending up in the dock and visits from the police, what fleet safety actually means is paperwork – tonnes of it.

Look at the “Key laws” article below.

It summarises some of the legislation affecting car and van fleet operators today, each containing a nugget of law that might hang you out to dry if things go wrong and the other party involved has a good lawyer.

So although fleet safety ultimately leads to your drivers being covered in a virtual woolly safety blanket, to begin with it is all about covering your back.

Most businesses haven’t got the time to wade through the thousands of pages of legislation that affect them, but they all simply require that businesses use an acceptable level of common sense and compassion when it comes to transport to avoid accidents and keep drivers and other road users safe.

Keeping vehicles in good condition, training drivers and ensuring they are not being pushed too hard covers most bases, but in the harsh light of an average business day, this can all get forgotten.

Many fleets haven’t learned these basic lessons – or haven’t been able to persuade management to listen – despite clear warning signs of the consequences recently.

One of the most important involved a company that encouraged a culture of long hours and was found liable for a road accident in which one of its workers was paralysed.

Michael Eyres was flung from his van after momentarily falling asleep at the wheel and was told he could sue the company where he worked as a kitchen fitter for damages expected to exceed £1 million.

This was in spite of his own contributory negligence in not wearing a seatbelt, knowing he was at risk of falling asleep after working for 19 hours, speeding and texting on his mobile phone while driving.

What finally nailed the employer – apart from the managing director being in the passenger seat at the time – were phrases used by the company such as “eating’s cheating” and “you can sleep when you’re dead”.

Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: “This case is a tragic reminder to employers of the need to manage occupational road risk.

“Companies need to be sure that their employees are in a fit condition to drive and have had adequate quality sleep before getting behind the wheel.”

This case shows that the risk facing fleets is more likely to be financial than legal, even with the arrival of the Corporate Manslaughter Act next April.

The act makes it easier to prosecute companies following fatalities and although it is aimed at big businesses, there are actually only a couple of hundred reportable workplace deaths each year in Britain.

By contrast, about 1,000 people a year die in at-work road accidents.

The law of averages suggests fleets will provide a more frequent target for legal eagles than most other areas of business.

Again it is the financial risk that is most likely to get boardrooms sitting up and taking notice.

A successful prosecution could bring an unlimited fine and unpleasant side-effects, such as a court order to widely publicise the company’s failures, which should make for an interesting press release.

Solutions to this risk are easy to write about, but much harder to implement.

Fleet managers need to get their bosses to listen and support risk management incentives, win the support of drivers, create investigation-proof records and audit trails that prove a fleet takes health and safety seriously and have workable written policies and procedures for running the whole thing.

There, easy isn’t it?

Although the Corporate Manslaughter Act is likely to be the “nuclear option” when it comes to prosecuting companies for failure, it should make it easier to ease open the company safe to pay for safety improvements.

Faced with the array of legislation listed here, and a stern warning of the consequences of failure, no boardroom can turn a blind eye to the need for action.

Key laws: affecting fleets

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
Employers have a duty of care for the safety of employees at work, regardless of the type or size of the business. There is also a duty of care to others who may be affected by their business activities which, in the case of driving, means all other road users.

Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
Employers are required to carry out risk assessments, make arrangements to implement necessary measures, appoint competent people and arrange for appropriate information and training.

The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1996
These regulations set out the standards for vehicles that can be used on the UK’s roads.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992
These regulations cover a wide range of basic health, safety and welfare issues including traffic routes for vehicles within the workplace.

Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998
These regulations ensure that work equipment is suitable for its intended use, safe and inspected and properly maintained. It also requires those using the equipment to be properly trained.

Road Traffic Acts supported by the Highway Code
The Highway Code applies to all road users and includes information on signs and markings, road users, the law and driving penalties.

It is an offence for an organisation to set driver schedules which may cause them to break speed limits and/or have payment reward schemes which in any way incentivise them to do so. Also covers laws ranging from banning use of mobile phones while driving to anti-smoking legislation.

EC Drivers’ Hours Rules
UK Domestic Drivers’ Hours Rules
The Road Transport (Working Times) Regulations 2005

It is the driver’s and employer’s responsibility to ensure compliance with drivers’ hours and tachograph regulations. They are applicable to goods vehicles in excess of 3.5 tonnes. Tachographs must be used to record hours of driving, other work, breaks and rest periods. Additional information can be found on the Department for Transport website (www.dft.gov.uk/drivingforwork).

Corporate Manslaughter Act
The “nuclear option” when it comes to laws affecting fleet safety. There are warnings it could become the prosecution of choice for companies, but a company’s entire culture has to be held responsible for a death before it comes into play.

  • Sources: DfT; Fleet News Guide to Risk Management
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