Photo via  Loïc Dupasquier /Flickr.

Photo via Loïc Dupasquier/Flickr.

It seems to be an ongoing theme in the industry today: Fleet management has changed dramatically over the years. Fleet managers are now information managers now managing suppliers, which can make everything much more complex. As it pertains to how fleet managers perform their duties today, perhaps, to some extent, this is true.

But, the overall mission of the fleet manager today is no different than it was 50 years ago: to provide employees with the safest, most cost-effective vehicles possible. Safety is every bit as important a responsibility now as it was then. Best practices in safety management not only meet that responsibility, but achieve cost effectiveness as well.

There are three basic areas where best practices in safety management can be applied:

  • Drivers: Who drives vehicles and how they should drive them.
  • Vehicles: What vehicle types provide the safest alternatives and how they should be maintained to keep them safe.
  • Policy: What policies and processes should be in place to maintain a safe fleet, for both drivers and the vehicles they drive.

All three of these areas are intermeshed in the safety equation. Ensuring that drivers operate their vehicles safely is undermined if the vehicles they drive aren't safe. Unsafe drivers render otherwise safe vehicles dangerous. And, it is fleet policy that ties everything together, provided it is regularly enforced.

Ensuring Safe Drivers

It matters little how safe company vehicles may be, or how thoroughly fleet safety policy is set if drivers are not trained. Unless the employees who drive those vehicles and are subject to that policy drive safely, neither matters much.

Best practices in driver safety require several steps and ongoing processes:

  • Pre-hire screening
  • New-hire training
  • Motor vehicle record (MVR) analysis
  • Ongoing safety training
  • Safety policy rewards or penalties

Each of the above processes will go a long way toward the ultimate goal of any fleet safety policy — risk assessment and management. Many of the costs associated with unsafe driving can be avoided by managing risk, beginning with the driver.

Pre-hire screening is the foundation of driver safety. When the company must recruit and hire a new employee to whom a company vehicle is to be provided, next to job skills and experience, the candidate's driving record is paramount. It is the first step in the risk management process. All candidates for whom a vehicle would be assigned should be asked to also provide at least five years’ worth of driving records.

An MVR, of course, will reveal serious violations such as speeding, failure to obey signals, reckless driving, and DUI/DWI, but don't overlook equipment and administrative violations. A driver who has several minor tickets for expired plates or burned out bulbs might reveal a candidate who is disorganized, or doesn’t take simple rules and regulations seriously.

Another consideration is whether a candidate is familiar with the territory he or she will be assigned. Even with the help of telematics solutions and GPS, a driver who isn't familiar with the area can be a safety risk.

Training New Hires

Once the hire has been made, the focus on safety doesn't end. All new drivers should be required to read the full fleet safety policy and sign off on it, including permission for the company to pull his or her MVR at any point or as often as required.

New employees usually must spend a week, or at least a few days, undergoing new hire orientation. It is usually a matter of human resources going over everything from pay periods to benefits, holiday schedules to dress codes, and everything in between. Job tools, such as cell phones and computers, are ordered, the expense policy is explained, and perhaps an application for the corporate credit card is submitted.
At the same time, the new driver should spend time with the fleet manager going over not only safety policy, but the overall fleet policy as well.

By now, all of this focus on safety should make it clear to the new hire that the company takes safety very seriously. The repetition element of safety is necessary for the program and message to be successful.

Analyzing an MVR

The review of driver MVRs is not terribly complicated, but, as previously mentioned, is a critical element of safety best practices. After the initial review during recruitment and new hire, the company should be reviewing all driver MVRs at least twice each year, or as often as budgets and resources permit.

There are three overall categories of violations that MVR reviews will reveal:

  • Moving: Speeding, DUI/DWI, failure
    to yield, failure to obey traffic controls, failure to signal, etc.
  • Equipment: Non-functioning lights (turn signals, brake lights, headlights), obstructed vision due to glass damage, etc.
  • Administrative: Expired tags, expired inspections, unpaid parking tickets, etc.

While moving violations, particularly speeding and DUI/DWI, are the most serious, don't ignore the others. Any violations is significant — they violate laws and regulations that can create hazards and, ultimately, are a risk factor that cannot and should not be ignored.

Advancing Safety Training

With the technology available to fleet managers today, safe driver training is easier to conduct than ever before. Training can include behind the wheel, online (virtual), a group setting, and/or individual. However it is done, training should be not only part of fleet procedure, but should be included in any group setting, such as weekly sales group meetings and conference calls.

A key focus in all driver safety training should be defensive driving. Drivers should be trained to assume other drivers will make mistakes and adjust their own driving accordingly. A classic example of defensive driving describes a driver approaching an intersection or cross street controlled by a stop sign. All drivers should at least slow down as the
intersection is approached to make certain that any cross traffic does indeed stop before proceeding.

It isn't so much the content of safety training that creates success. Drivers know they shouldn't speed or drink and drive, should signal when turning or changing lanes, etc. They don't need to be trained to know it. It is the consistent repetition and regular focus on safety and safe driving that will reduce accidents. Combined with a safety message in all communications, from e-mails to company newsletters to conference calls and meetings, training will help ensure drivers not only maintain a safety mind-set, but know that the company has the same focus.

Balancing Reward & Penalty

Employees are motivated in different ways. Some are motivated in a negative sense, or fear the consequences for non-performance or policy violation. Others are motivated positively, by recognition or rewards for excellent performance. This is as true for safety as anything else.
Rewarding drivers for safe driving should require a record beyond just not having accidents, and it should be limited to drivers whose record is consistently clean — no violations and no accidents — for an extended period of time. Rewards can take the form of public recognition, money, prizes, or some combination of the three.

Penalties are outlined in fleet policy, and should become more serious as a driver's record gets worse. The most serious violations, such as speeding, DUI, or reckless driving, require immediate and serious penalties. The accumulation of less serious violations can be covered by a series of increasingly severe penalties.

First violations might be handled simply with a letter of warning, followed by, perhaps, a revocation of personal-use privileges or requiring payment of an accident deductible, right on up to possible termination for the most serious, or continuing, violations.

An important point: Before any penalties occur that may have financial implications, make certain the policy is approved by the company’s human resources and legal departments.

As important as repetition is to safety training and messaging, so too is consistency in the application of any policies. The age-old, "But he/she is my best sales performer," does not excuse serious violations, or a series of lesser ones. Every driver, from sales reps up to senior executives, must be subject to the same application of fleet safety policy.

Maintaining Safe Vehicles

Best practices in safety include ensuring vehicles provided to drivers are safe. Some of this is the responsibility of the driver — things like proper preventive maintenance and communicating conditions and problems quickly.

The vehicle selection process begins with finding the right vehicle for the job at hand. If the car or truck can’t do the job, everything else is irrelevant. A vehicle that is too small or under-powered will become a safety problem. The next step is proper equipment, for the job and in taking advantage of safety technology that might be available. Some of this technology includes:

  • GPS/telematics solutions: these systems can provide audio directions to allow drivers to know where they are going without having to take their eyes off the road. Telematics solutions can also provide reports to the fleet manager on driving behavior that may not be reflected in an MVR, but are red flags.
  • Lane change alerts: This technology provides the driver with a warning chime when sensors detect a vehicle coming up in an adjacent lane, effectively eliminating the notorious blind spot.
  • Collision mitigation: This new technology consists of sensors that detect obstructions in front of the vehicle, and, if the driver does not brake, the vehicle brakes automatically, which can prevent accidents duee to driver distraction.
  • Air bags: Air bag systems have evolved from a single device in the steering wheel to multiple units that protect the driver, as well as passengers, from frontal impacts as well as side collisions.

Combined with more mature technology such as antilock brakes, these new systems make vehicles safer than ever before, and have gone from mere protection to prevention — a substantial leap. Best practices require fleet managers to balance costs with benefits in equipping fleet vehicles.
Moving from state-of-the-art technology, there is a tried and true safety policy that has helped keep vehicles safe to drive for a half century or more: proper and consistent preventive maintenance.

It’s a simple formula — a well-maintained vehicle will operate more safely and efficiently than one that is not. Track driver PM, and communicate to drivers the importance of a vigorously applied schedule of preventive maintenance.

Including Safety in Fleet Policy

The third leg of the safety tripod is fleet policy, not just safety policy. There are two items that should be in every company’s fleet policy:

  • All drivers, and all passengers, are required to use seat belts at all times.
  • The use of cell phones or mobile communication devices is expressly prohibited while driving.

There should be no exceptions to the first. The second, with Blue Tooth and other hands-free technology, might be eased somewhat, but certainly not the use of a hand-held and dialed phone.

As described earlier, the policy should include details of the consequences for violations, as well as rewards for exemplary safety performance. From an administrative standpoint, various procedures should also be clear, such as how to report an accident, repair procedures, and condition reporting.

Training requirements, whether written or behind the wheel, should also be covered, and the aforementioned preventive maintenance scheduling and requirements as well.

Another key item of safety policy is the accident review. Each incident where a vehicle is damaged should be reviewed by a panel, which might include the fleet manager, risk manager, HR and legal representatives, and someone from the driver's side (sales or service). Policy should include definitions of chargeability, that is, which incidents are "chargeable" under the policy and subject to penalty or other consequences.

Non-Negotiable Safety

Is there anything in a fleet operation that is more important than safety? Most, if not all, fleet managers would say no. Cost control is important, yes, but the safety of employees and the mitigation and management of risk is the most important responsibility the company has. The message must be clear, consistent, and ongoing from new hires to veterans to executives, safety should be in the minds of all drivers all the time. The three legs of the safety tripod — drivers, vehicles, and policy — add up to a successful, cost effective, and safe company vehicle program.

Originally posted on Fleet Financials