There are three key elements to fleet safety: drivers, vehicles, and policy. Each brings different challenges for fleet managers, primarily in determining what actionable data is needed, where it is, how it can be captured, and what to do with it.
With advances in technology, most data can now be transmitted in real or near real time. Using telematics, fleet managers can govern driver behavior, as well as vehicle condition, even mechanical diagnostics.
Here are key ways that modern technology has dramatically changed how fleet managers address the safety challenge.
Reviewing Driver MVRs
No matter how technologically advanced a vehicle might be, fleet safety begins with the driver. Beginning with the hiring process and ongoing throughout a driver’s employment, fleet managers have been challenged not only to make certain drivers are safe, but to assess driver performance, and, ultimately, manage risk.
Driver records have almost always been part of the hiring process; candidates signed off on the company’s authority to acquire an MVR, which was reviewed as part of an overall background check. Going forward, MVRs were reviewed on some regular schedule for all drivers (at least every six months, sometimes quarterly). Any violations present were handled via fleet policy, which we’ll examine a bit later on.
The MVR process began with paper; reports were obtained from each state “manually.” The challenge here is that each state has its own format, fee, and point system. Paper reports were ultimately replaced by digital versions; fleet management companies began to take these and create a “universal” format, their own, which helped fleet managers immensely in assessing driver risk.
Is there some newer technology in the works? Perhaps; technology has made the MVR review process much easier, but it isn’t likely that the review of driver records, both in the hiring process as well as ongoing, will be replaced.
Accessing and reviewing MVRs does reveal, to a limited extent, how drivers behave behind the wheel — to the extent that they’ve been caught in a violation. No speeding tickets on a driver record does not mean that your driver doesn’t speed; only that he or she hasn’t been caught speeding. A fleet manager might well see a clean record in the January MVR run, then in the next one, a DUI, speeding, or other serious violation. In that interim, such drivers were most definitely a risk to themselves and others, and placed the company at serious liability and negligent entrustment risk.
This is where the magic of telematics has revolutionized driver risk management. Telematics hasn’t replaced MVRs, (at least not yet) as a risk management tool, but it has dramatically improved overall driver risk assessment. On a real-time basis, driver behavior is transmitted to the fleet manager, including critical risk items:
● Harsh acceleration
● Harsh braking
● Harsh cornering
● Seat belt use
Fleet managers can literally see risk factors occurring in real time, and take appropriate action, action that can prevent violations and reduce risk that MVRs can only show long after the fact.
It can be reasonably said that telematics technology and MVRs work hand in hand; the former in managing driver risk in real time, from a preventive stand point, the latter in reporting violations which are actionable vis-a-vis a company fleet safety program or overall policy, violations not captured via the new technology. The combination is a powerful risk management and enforcement tool.
Evolving Vehicle Tech
Though drivers are the final stop in managing risk, technology has caused a sea change in the vehicles fleet drivers drive. It began with seat belts.
Seat belts began as two point lap belt systems, not unlike the belts you’ll see on your next airline flight. The three point system we know today was created by engineer Nils Bohlin, hired by Swedish automaker Volvo in 1958. Other OEMs followed suit into the early 1960s, offering seat belts as optional equipment. In 1966, all cars sold in the U.S. were required to be seat belt equipped, with mandatory seat belt usage (so called “click it or ticket” laws) following shortly thereafter.
Next came air bag technology, introduced by General Motors in 1973, again evolving from the original steering wheel air bag to what we see today, with side curtain and passenger air bags. After it was discovered that the explosive deployment of air bags posed a hazard for small children, automakers began to allow owners to disengage passenger air bags.
Safety technology (excepting advancements in braking, i.e., disc brakes) had primarily been geared toward avoiding or minimizing injury to occupants in a collision. More preventive technology followed and continues to this day. In no particular order:
● Air bags – Originally tested in government fleet cars in the 1970s, air bags widespread commercial availability took off in the 1980s, first as an option, then as standard equipment, evolving from the driver air bag (housed in the steering wheel) to side curtain air bags. They’re now a standard part of all cars and light trucks, and have saved many lives over the decades of their use. Along with seat belts, air bags are a basic injury preventive addition to the search for safety.
● Backup cameras – Roughly a quarter of all accidents result from backing up; and injuries and deaths are dominated by small children. Backup cameras are a strong preventive technology.
● Lane intrusion alarms – They take several forms, but tired and distracted drivers often drift out of the lane in which they’re traveling. Lane intrusion alarms are engineered so that drivers must take corrective action.
● Active braking systems – Also named “collision mitigation,” “accident avoidance,” and other monikers, these systems actually will brake the vehicle when it has crossed a “closeness” threshold with a vehicle or object in front of it. This occurs thousands of times each day, as drivers, distracted by cell phones or other phenomena, fail to manually brake a vehicle resulting in a front to rear collision. Active braking systems will break the vehicle, again, once the on board radar determines the vehicle gets too close to the vehicle or object in front of it. (OEMs have been rightfully careful in naming and describing such technology, due to potential liability if the system fails, or the vehicle is moving too fast to brake in time).
● “Intelligent” vehicles – This technology, which is relatively new, actually allows vehicles to communicate with each other, or with some fixed beacon on the road. Put very simply, imagine two vehicles, one traveling north and another traveling west, approaching an intersection. Both vehicles are sending out constant signals which, once the vehicles are within the range of these signals (say, 100 yards of each other), send notifications to the vehicle and drivers as they approach, and may activate other safety systems (the aforementioned active braking systems, for example), reducing dramatically the possibility of a collision. Even if only one of the vehicles in the example is so equipped, this technology can go a long way toward actual collision avoidance.
Policy and Process
The third leg of the safety “stool” is fleet policy, namely fleet safety policy. Fleet policy must address several key elements:
➊ Who: Which employee is assigned a company vehicle. Which hire candidates, and ongoing employees, are permitted to be assigned and operate a company provided vehicle.
➋ When: When is the employee permitted to drive the vehicle, i.e., personal use, business use, and for which expenses will the company pay.
➌ What: What vehicles will be assigned? What makes, models, and equipment are approved?
➍ Where: Are there any limits to where a company vehicle may be operated, both for business and personal purposes?
➎ Why: Why does a particular job function need a company provided vehicle? What prevents the company from requiring an employee to use his/her personal vehicle on company business?
➏ How: How is the vehicle acquired? Maintained? Repaired when necessary?
Beyond the above, and most importantly, there is fleet safety policy. Safety policy generally covers several key elements of safe driving:
● Seat belts: Company drivers are required to “buckle up” whenever driving, and to require any passengers to do so as well.
● Mobile phones: Drivers are never permitted to use mobile/cell phones while driving, whether or not the phone is hands free. No calls, no texting, no internet usage. The only exception might be the use of a navigation app, when the vehicle itself is not so equipped. And that is only when the route is searched and set up while the vehicle is parked.
● Defensive driving: Drivers are required to drive defensively, that is, to always assume other drivers will ignore traffic controls, and/or make errors that will create dangerous situations. For example, when drivers are approaching an intersection that is not controlled in their direction, but controlled in the cross road, make certain that another driver will stop at the intersection before proceeding.
● Accidents: All accidents are reviewed by a committee of stakeholders (HR, fleet, risk management, legal) to determine whether or not the driver is charged with responsibility (not necessarily fault, but chargeable per defensive driving techniques).
These are the basics. Another common, and important, element of fleet safety policy is a “reward/penalty” process.
Drivers who drive safely and have no violations or chargeable accidents within a specified period of time (a year, five years, ten years, etc.) are rewarded with recognition, a prize, or some combination of both.
Alternatively, drivers whose MVR shows violations, and/or who have chargeable accidents are subject to sanctions which can range from a letter of warning all the way up to and including termination. Various violations are often assigned points; the lowest being simple equipment violations such as a burned out blinker or headlight, or a process violation such as an expired registration or inspection sticker. More serious moving violations can range from failure to signal, to tailgating, up to speeding and DUI. The more points, and the more often a driver receives violations or is involved in chargeable accidents, the more severe the penalty. Penalties for serious violations can involve suspension of personal use privileges, revocation of company car use, even termination.
Three Legs of Safety
These three legs of safety, drivers, vehicles, and policy, are all impacted by technology. We’ve also seen the evolution of these technological advances as to this impact:
● Initially, vehicle safety technology was geared toward the prevention of injury to the driver. Seat belts, air bags, “crumple zones,” unibody construction, and more all focused on preventing drivers from being injured when an accident occurs.
● The next wave of safety technology was geared toward the prevention of accidents in the first place. Backup cameras, lane intrusion alarms, active braking systems, even “intelligent” vehicles are all for the purpose of preventing actions that cause accidents.
● These two levels of safety technology, prevention of accidents and, when accidents occur, prevention or mitigation of injury, have been further bolstered by telematics, and the real time data on driver behavior. The ability of a fleet manager to see, real time, whether or not drivers are speeding, if they’re accelerating or braking harshly, or ignoring traffic controls is an important step toward effective risk management.
Is There A Downside?
Safety technology is a wonderful thing. Helping drivers avoid accidents, preventing or mitigating injury when accidents occur, and helping fleet managers manage driver risk are all noble goals. But is there, or can there be, any downside to this technology?
The answer is a qualified yes. Put simply, a driver who knows his or her vehicle is fully equipped with safety technology may tend to be lax in their own driving behavior and depend upon such technology to keep them safe. All the technology in the world cannot be seen as a substitute for alert, defensive driving, and employees who are assigned company vehicles should be consistently trained to recognize their responsibility to drive safely, to drive as though there is no such technology keeping them safe.
Safety technology continues to advance at a dizzying pace; preventing injury, preventing accidents, and managing risk are all at the pinnacle of a fleet manager’s job.