Most company drivers are grateful for the use of a company car. In return, they take care of the car as if it is their own property. Of course, there is always the hope that it will be their own, when they buy it from the company after it is turned in.

Unfortunately, there are those who may still treat the company car like their own; and trash everything they lay their hands on. This is (sort of) OK when it is truly their own vehicle. But when it is a company car, the image of the company suffers and then, at turn-in time, the bottom line also suffers.

So, how do you prevent driver abuse of your vehicles? That was the question AF posed to a panel of fleet managers at the 1999 NAFA Fleet Management Institute in New Orleans.

Panelists included Mike Buffi, fleet manager, MetLife Auto & Home; Windell Mitchell, fleet manager, King County, WA; and Beatrice Coolican, global fleet manager for AlliedSignal.

Smoking Is a Major Problem

"Do you want to fire a top salesman, or somebody very important in the organization, because they smoked in the car and they weren't supposed to?" Buffi asked. He indicated that for him, that was an issue.

"We have a policy that there is no smoking in the company cars," Buffi continued. "We have had people that we know have smoked in the cars. I don't know how my colleagues feel, but to me, it's a difficult subject."

Coolican indicated agreement. She said that much of the responsibility rested with the individual driver. "Certain individuals have class," she said. "They would never go against policy, or abuse their position of having a company vehicle. I'm very fortunate, out of my total of 900 drivers, maybe 1 percent is abusive."

Coolican said she didn't have a specific policy on smoking, "because I know if you force the issue, they'll do it anyway, even more so."

Mitchell remarked that things are slightly different with a government fleet, but the problem remains.

"People who work for the government don't get up and quit because you discipline them about abuse of vehicles," he said.

Mitchell noted that he has a no-smoking policy in place. He said that whenever he could attribute smoking to a specific individual, he takes the car and has it detailed, then sends the bill to the driver.

"That's the first go-round," he said. "On the second go-round we notify the supervisor, and we send the division the bill for whatever it costs. And, of course, the driver can be subject to whatever disciplinary action the supervisor deems appropriate. So those are the things we have in place."

Buffi noted that the MetLife no-smoking policy was effective most of the time. "To me," he added, "with a nationwide fleet, it has to come down to the local manager or supervisor to really enforce it."

Regular Inspections Help

Buffi said that one of the things he does is require a quarterly inspection report of the cars, to check out their condition. "And at least twice a year," he explained, "that quarterly inspection report has to be signed by someone other than the driver himself. That's how we hold them accountable."

Buffi added that he relies upon the local supervisor or manager to keep an eye on the vehicles.

He explained that if someone does abuse the car and not care for it, it might be a reflection of other problems the driver might have.

Mitchell said that in King County, one of the policies the division asked him to put into place was to look at how vehicles were being used, and recommend rotation, so that he could equalize usage and dispose of the vehicles in a timely manner. "As part of this process," he noted, "when we find someone abusing the vehicles, and we come to rotation, we usually give them the worst vehicle. That's another incentive not to abuse."

Employee Purchase Option Makes a Difference

Coolican noted that if drivers have the option to purchase the vehicles at turn-in, then they tend to take good care of them.

"It's a great incentive," she said. "I think about 85 percent of my drivers make arrangements to buy their vehicle. They take care of the vehicles, make sure that they're washed regularly, that they're maintained, do their oil changes every 5,000 miles, take care of everything that's necessary."

Coolican emphasized that the way a driver takes care of a car is part of the overall image of the company."If your car is sloppy, you come to work sloppy," she said. "It really boggles my mind, how some drivers can live in their vehicle. They spend the majority of their time in the vehicle, and they keep it like a garbage bag," she went on.

Vehicle Pools Create Problems

Mitchell explained that there are two types of vehicles in the King County fleet, assigned vehicles and pool vehicles. He said that in the police department, for example, officers just go to a pool and get a vehicle when they need one.

"What we've found," he said, "is that whenever there is pool use, the maintenance costs and abuse go up. The officers usually leave the complaints and problems for the next person and don't report them." He said that maintenance costs increased 25 percent in the pool environment, and that the life of the vehicle decreased by 25 percent.

"So to reduce vehicle abuse, we went to an assigned vehicle concept. We call it 'Car per Officer.'" Police officers now have their own vehicles and are expected to maintain them properly. Mitchell said that with assigned vehicles, they were able to extend the life of the vehicles by 25 percent and also reduce maintenance and repair costs by 25 percent.

Coolican noted that at AlliedSignal, vehicles are assigned to a specific person, such as a plant manager. "But if you take a vehicle away from a plant manager," she said, "he simply orders it as a 'plant vehicle,' instead of his own assigned vehicle." She explained that that way, not only does he get out of having to care for the vehicle, he also no longer has to report imputed income at the end of the year because the vehicle is assigned as a pool vehicle, even though he is driving it exclusively.

"So that's my great problem on abuse," Coolican said. "I think if you're entitled to a company vehicle and drive it on personal business, then you should be reporting the imputed income and should do that on a regular basis. Just because you now have a pool vehicle you don't do that. I can't catch that, because with vehicles all across the country, I'm not at their location. That's one of my main gripes."

Coping With The Terminated Employee Problem

Coolican noted that in her case, abuse often happens when a driver is about to leave the company. "Sometimes they are not allowed to purchase the vehicle because we have a policy that the vehicle has to be at least two years old before we sell it to the driver."

Buffi said that in his company, the local supervisor or manager controls the situation. If the person is leaving voluntarily, and the supervisor knows that the person is a good, trustworthy individual, he said, "I think we can let the person have the car until the end of his stay." But he added that if they know a person is going to be terminated, for something to do with his employment, they send the local supervisor to inform the driver that day that he is terminated, and take away the car immediately.

"So there is no lag time between notification that he's terminated and when the car is taken away. That prevents a person from doing some damage," Buffi said.

The Traffic Citation Problem

"Where I have a big problem is with traffic violations," said Coolican. She added that all drivers are responsible for their speeding tickets and parking tickets. They have to take care of them out of their own pockets; it's not an expensible item for them. But she noted that they often just ignore them, "And that ticks me off," she said. "When they ignore their tickets, then a $10 parking ticket turns into a $300 judgment, and you can't do anything about it."

"In my experience," said Buffi, "if you lease your vehicles, the fleet leasing company is actually put on notice that the state of New York will revoke their privileges to have company cars in New York. So that could be a problem. We make sure, in our case, that the driver is responsible to pay for the ticket."

Coolican remarked that in many states, New York for example, they take pictures. "You don't even know that you were ticketed," she said. "The ticket comes to my office, then I send the notice to the driver with a note, 'you're responsible for this violation, please take care of it,' and then they ignore it." She added that this leads to another reminder, and so on.

"If it isn't brought to my immediate attention, so that I can notify his or her supervisor, it ends up in a judgment and that is when they can confiscate your vehicle."

She said that when the driver says "But it's not my fault," she replies, "You pay for the ticket, then you can fight it." She added that a lot of them still ignore it. "They think, 'Oh, it's a company car, the company should pay for it. It's not my fault I got a ticket, I was rushing from one customer to another, the company's got to pay.' That's my biggest abuse in the system."

Abuse by Omission

Mitchell brought up another type of abuse that he finds in his fleet. His drivers miss scheduled preventive maintenance on a vehicle, so that they have higher than normal maintenance costs on their vehicle. In addition, he said that he sees a lot of damage to the side-walls of tires, which shortens the life of the tires. "In some cases," he said, "we have transmission problems because vehicles miss their preventive maintenance."

Buffi suggested that the quarterly vehicle inspection report he uses not only gives the overall condition of the vehicle, but also has the driver report what maintenance has been done on the vehicle during the past quarter. Did it have an oil and filter change? What other maintenance was done on that vehicle? "That's another check we have in the system," he said. "We look those reports over on a quarterly basis to make sure that the vehicle was taken in for its regular maintenance."

Buffi said his drivers still have to do maintenance on the vehicles. "In a situation where a driver missed his oil change, and has gone 7,000 or 8,000 miles since the time the quarterly report came in, we'll call the supervisor and tell him that the driver must get the vehicle serviced today. We must get communication today that the vehicle was serviced. Otherwise we could blow an engine."

He noted that the quarterly report is not a be-all, end-all. But he said it's a good tool to use. "It helps us know what's going on. Then we can communicate to the local supervisor things that are enforced, or that must be enforced, depending upon what the thing is," Buffi commented.

He noted that not too many people will falsify that record, "because if you enter something on it, you have to sign the bottom, and if it's not true, now you're falsifying a company record, and that's another problem altogether. It's cause for termination. When drivers have to sign the bottom line on those reports, they're going to be honest, they'll disclose things accurately."

Mitchell noted that his drivers take care of that automatically. Each time they get fuel, or service, the information is uploaded to his computer system. "The problem comes," he said, "if they mistakenly enter the wrong mileage. For instance, if they say they have 30,000 miles, but put in 20,000 miles, then the car is not scheduled for maintenance, and could go for a long time without it." He added that it can slip through the cracks, but it doesn't happen often.


About the author
Paul Dexler

Paul Dexler

Former Contributor

Paul Dexler is a former contributor to Bobit Business Media's AutoGroup.

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