A fleet safety strategy consists of a number of key metrics that can help reduce fleet accidents. Writing a safety policy, attaining senior-level endorsement, and handling policy violations with consistency are some steps fleet managers can take to help ensure a safer driving culture.

A fleet safety strategy consists of a number of key metrics that can help reduce fleet accidents. Writing a safety policy, attaining senior-level endorsement, and handling policy violations with consistency are some steps fleet managers can take to help ensure a safer driving culture.

Fleet safety can often get as much lip service as it does serious commitment. That commitment only begins with the fleet manager; it extends upward, laterally, and downward in the organization.

Creating a policy document is only a small part of that commitment, an early step in a well-thought-out strategy. That strategy consists of a number of key metrics that emanate from that policy and extend throughout the company. Here are those metrics and how they fit into creating a safer, more cost-efficient fleet.

Take the First Steps

The first thing any fleet manager should do is assess exactly where the company sits vis a vis fleet safety. This is done by examining a number of key areas:

● Policy. Is there a formal fleet policy? If so, does it have a safety component? If not, why not?

● Training. Does the company provide drivers with safety training? When? How often? What kind?

● Statistics. How many accidents occur per million miles driven? What is the average cost per accident (including hard costs such as repairs, replacement rentals, and liability costs, and soft costs such as downtime)? How many are chargeable/not chargeable accidents?

● Enforcement. If a policy exists, does fleet management consistently enforce it at all levels?

● Communication. How does fleet management communicate safety in the field, if at all?

As with anything else, it's difficult to know where to go unless you know where you've been and where you are now. This kind of assessment will reveal gaps in the safety effort and provide fleet managers with a road map as to how to fill them.

Attain Management Endorsement

The first metric in ensuring a safer fleet is to seek a serious, formal endorsement from management. Lack of such an endorsement will make enforcement of policy and the seriousness with which staff views safety difficult. That endorsement must come from the highest level possible: the "C" level, beginning with the CEO.

What gets senior management's attention? Start with cost and how to contain and reduce it. It is likely the CEO deals with big numbers, in the hundreds of millions or billions in most of his or her decision-making processes. Unless the fleet is of unusual size, e.g., tens of thousands of vehicles, these kinds of numbers will be impossible to show as they pertain to safety and the lack of a safety program.

If the fleet is relatively average in size, say, several hundred vehicles, fleet management can express the costs associated with a lack of focus on safety in a manner more likely to make a CEO sit up and take notice. Let's say a 500-vehicle fleet has 100 accidents per year (a 20-percent rate, not unusual), and the average cost of these accidents is $1,500 per occurrence. That's a total of $150,000 in cost - not a small number at the departmental level, but not quite eye-opening in the executive suite.

But let's further say the company operates at a 5-percent PAT (profit after tax) rate. Use a technique known as "grossing up" to put that $150,000 into a much more interesting perspective. At that 5-percent rate, the company must sell a full $3 million worth of product or service just to pay for the cost of those accidents ($150,000 / 0.05 = $3 million). Put another way, that's $3 million of sales the company needs to produce at zero profit due to the costs of accidents. Knocking that accident rate in half, or a combination of prevention and reduction in the average cost that halves it, will in essence produce $1.5 million in profitable sales that didn't exist before. Imagine the effect of this method if the fleet has 1,000 or 5,000 vehicles, and that's just for repairs and other internal costs. Throw in some liability cost for physical damage, injury, or even death, and the numbers skyrocket. That extra comma and those extra zeros are likely to command some attention from a CEO or CFO.

Whatever the method, management endorsement at senior levels is the first and most important metric a fleet manager must deliver to make a safety focus work. The endorsement should be formal, written, and seen by every stakeholder in the fleet operation. It is the blunt instrument a fleet manager needs to make all the other metrics effective.

Include Safety in Fleet Policy

Selling safety to senior management and obtaining their endorsement leads to the next metric: a safety component in fleet policy. A safety policy must be complete, define terms, and be clear in both the consequences for violation and rewards for exemplary compliance.

Begin with an overall safe driving statement: All drivers of company vehicles, or drivers of personal vehicles on company business, will be expected to drive defensively, be aware of others on the road, avoid accidents, obey traffic laws, and keep their vehicles in safe operating condition. From there, fleet management can develop a more specific policy:

● Seat belts. All drivers and their passengers are required to wear seat belts.

● Drugs/alcohol. Drivers are not permitted to use drugs (legal or otherwise) or alcohol when operating a company vehicle, or a personal vehicle on company business. No exceptions.

● Cell phones. Drivers should not be permitted to use cell phones or smartphones while driving. Drivers must stop the vehicle in a legal place when speaking, texting, or otherwise using mobile devices.

● Personal use. The policy should clearly spell out personal use guidelines, which can vary from one company to another (prohibited, employee only, employee and spouse, licensed family member). It also should not allow any exceptions except in a defined emergency, such as a driver becoming incapacitated.

● Obey traffic laws. All drivers are expected to obey all traffic laws, including speed limits, signals, signs, and regulations.

● Driver's license. Drivers must be legally licensed in the state in which they reside.

● Motor vehicle record (MVR). Fleet management will review MVRs for all employees who drive company vehicles at the time of  hire and on a regular schedule each year. If the personal use policy permits any others to drive the vehicle, fleet management will assess their records as well, on the same schedule.[PAGEBREAK]

Handle Accidents and Violations

The policy must next classify accidents and violations and specify the consequences for both. Accidents are generally classified as either chargeable or non-chargeable; that is, counted against a driver's compliance or not. Chargeability must be clearly defined; often, accidents are chargeable if the fleet manager (or accident review committee) determines the driver did not do everything possible to avoid it. Sometimes, fault is used; however if a policy requires defensive driving, fault is a weak determinant.

One way or another, a policy must categorize accidents so the fleet manager can identify repeat "offenders" and take corrective action. A common and very effective way to categorize accidents is via an accident review committee. Made up of various stakeholders in the fleet operation (legal, human resources, driver function, fleet, risk management, etc.), the committee meets regularly to review accident reports and determine chargeability.

Traffic violations should be handled in the same manner. There is a wide variety of such violations, from simple ones such as driving with expired tags or failure to show proof of insurance, to very serious ones such as reckless driving and DUI. They should not be treated the same. A driver cited for an expired registration should not suffer the same consequences as one cited for speeding. Administrative violations generally don't pose any safety hazard, though they shouldn't be ignored. Equipment violations can - a burned-out turn signal bulb prevents drivers from alerting others of a turn, which creates a safety hazard. The most serious violations, such as speeding, DUI, DWI, and reckless driving create very serious dangers to the driver, passengers, pedestrians, and other drivers, and should be treated as such.

Once accidents and violations have been classified according to chargeability and severity, respectively, the next step is to develop a scale of consequences, which can range from simple reprimand all the way up to termination. MVR reports should be reviewed at least once each year, preferably more often, to view violations and confirm the validity of drivers' licenses. The review committee can look through accident reports and take appropriate action when necessary.

The policy metric should flow smoothly from the management endorsement. Require new hires to read the policy and sign a statement to that effect. The single most important policy item is consistency; from the CEO on down, everyone needs to understand that safety policy, including consequences for violations, will be enforced consistently throughout the organization, at all levels, without exception.

Train and Communicate with Drivers

The next metric is important as well. Driver safety training and communicating the safety message help ensure a thorough understanding of management's endorsement and the fleet's safety policy, and help maximize compliance.

Driver training may seem to be teaching the obvious; any driver who has a valid license has taken driving tests, behind the wheel and on paper, and exhibits an understanding of the rights and responsibilities attendant to driving a vehicle. While true, it doesn't mean drivers remain aware at all times while going about their duties.

Drivers know they're not supposed to exceed the speed limit or drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and should obey traffic controls, cede the right of way to pedestrians, and so forth. But in a day full of meetings, presentations, communications, and customers, these things have a tendency to move to the back burner as drivers focus on the job at hand; this can lead to tailgating, speeding, and ignoring or missing traffic signals. This is where training and communications come in.

Fleet drivers can accomplish training in person, behind the wheel, via the Internet, or on paper, in a number of venues. The more often fleets train their drivers, the safer the fleet. If the driver's mission is sales, for example, sales groups often have regular conference calls, branch or regional meetings, and an annual sales meeting. Work with management to get fleet safety on the agenda - a half hour will suffice, an hour better. Use the time wisely; highlight key areas of safety policy (consequences for policy violations, for example) and add in a driving quiz.

Behind-the-wheel training is difficult, particularly in a large, dispersed fleet, simply due to logistics, but there are potentially useful online training programs that simulate driving. The fleet can organize classroom training at branch, regional, or national meetings, and upon initial hire.

Communication goes hand in hand with training as a key safety metric; once again, it is the repetition of safe driving techniques and responsibilities more than the actual content that makes it effective.

Communicating safety in a 21st Century technological world is far simpler than it was 20 years ago. It can start with something as simple as an e-mail signature and move up to sophisticated two-way communications with drivers and managers. Every e-mail a fleet manager sends should have a reference to safety or safe driving; voicemail messages should as well.

Work with human resources or the marketing department to make certain the company intranet site has a fleet link or tab; make safety a focus in that tab. Post testimonials from drivers who have used safety training to avoid accidents. Post a quiz question each week, with perhaps a drawing to win a small gift or prize for correct responses. Highlight a different policy item each month, including a "did you know" explanation of the consequences of chargeable accidents or traffic citations.

Safety newsletters are making a comeback in electronic form. A fleet manager can use them to cite a driver or drivers who have completed some period (one year, five years, etc.) of accident- and violation-free service to the company.

Remember: Drivers in general know how to drive safely, just as children know they shouldn't poke a finger in a wall socket. But sometimes this isn't enough, and repeating the safety message through training and communications is a metric critical to successful safety policy.

Implement a Rewards Program

Another metric that many fleets have used successfully is a safety reward or award program. Although it is fair to say that drivers need not be rewarded for not running into a bridge abutment, rewarding drivers for exemplary safety records is an excellent motivator.

People are motivated in different ways: negatively (fear of consequences or punishment) or positively (seeking recognition, pride, competing for rewards). The negative motivation has already been covered in the policy. The positive motivation is a reward program. It isn't a complex program to implement and track, and drivers will appreciate the opportunity for recognition.

The first step is to make certain all drivers know and understand the policy definition of accident chargeability, and also the classification of traffic violations - simply put, that which will disqualify them from reward consideration. Once drivers know this, a fleet manager must make the subjective call on what constitutes an exemplary safe driving record. One year is probably not enough to determine this. Some drivers drive regularly in areas where accidents are more common (urban areas, where traffic is heavier), and others don't (rural areas, where most driving is done on open interstates). At least two years, with greater rewards for subsequent anniversaries (five, 10, 15 years, etc.), is a fair start.

What should the reward be? Here again, different people have different goals. Recognition is one; a mention in the company newsletter, a letter from the CEO, or the presentation of a certificate can all be starting points. Higher levels can be greater recognition (a meeting and photo op with the CEO, for example), or some prize (monetary, or product or service chosen from a catalog). Each year, fleet management can choose a "Driver of the Year," with perhaps a dinner for two at a fine restaurant, or a trip to the corporate office for lunch with the CEO. Rewards should not be nominal, however, since the goal is to let drivers know their safety is of paramount concern to the company.

Select Safe Vehicles

The final metric is the vehicles themselves. Vehicle selection and their proper care both contribute to the overall goal of a safer fleet.

Begin by using safety as one of the criteria in vehicle selection. Use the NHTSA crash rating score when reviewing models each year. Check the safety features standard in the vehicle: side/passenger air bags, for example. In an era of downsizing, these features and ratings are more important than ever.

Next, a rigorous preventive maintenance and inspection regime will make certain vehicles are in top condition and won't create hazards. From changing the oil to checking the brakes, a well-conditioned vehicle is a safe vehicle. Have drivers complete a company inspection report on a regular basis (the more often the better, but at least twice each year), noting any conditions that require attention. Critical to this process is to have the driver's supervisor sign off on the report. These reports will not only ensure drivers care for vehicles but will help keep resale value strong.

Create a Safety Culture

The point of all the key metrics is to create an overall culture of safety among fleet drivers and their managers. That safety culture should include not only employees, but their families, customers, and suppliers as well. If the company allows personal use by family members, it's all the more important. Drivers must know the company is concerned with the safety of everyone who might drive or ride in the vehicle. Managers and executives must understand the importance of these safety metrics, which impact both employee performance and company finances.