By Mike Antich

Last week, I attended a superb Fleet Safety Summit produced by Fleet Response, a fleet management company headquartered in Cleveland. I applaud Fleet Response for putting a spotlight on fleet safety and the safety-conscious fleet managers who took time out of their busy schedules to attend the two-day event. As one of the symposium presenters, I expressed my perspective on fleet safety, which is that some fleet managers do not consistently view safety as a top priority. I know many will disagree with me and say fleet safety is indeed a top concern, but when you talk with suppliers of fleet safety programs and services, they point out that the “talk” often does not translate into action.

Do You Walk the Talk?

In two decades of chronicling the history of fleet management, I have seen interest in fleet safety ebb and flow. Currently, fleet safety is a hot issue. In fact, in an annual survey I conduct of fleet managers, they rated fleet safety as their No. 2 concern, right behind the cost of fuel. Why the renewed interest in fleet safety? More and more fleet managers are reporting an uptick in preventable accidents. The primary cause is driver distraction, which accounts for 25-30 percent of all auto accidents. Driver distraction is increasing because drivers are multitasking while driving. The workload of company drivers, as with all of us, has increased tremendously. Drivers use “windshield time” for cell phone calls, texting, reviewing documents prior to meetings, eating while driving to the next appointment, etc. Although cell phone use is the primary cause of driver distraction, texting is becoming a growing (and more dangerous) factor.

Drivers engaged in mobile texting spend 400 percent more time taking their eyes off the road and are 70 percent more likely to swerve out of their lane. If you’re traveling 65 mph, taking your eyes off the road for three seconds while texting is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field. Texting represents a major liability exposure for fleets. One fleet received a legal judgment to pay $4.1 million for an accident caused by a driver using a personal digital assistant (PDA). It is not uncommon to see drivers resting a BlackBerry on a steering wheel while using their thumbs to type a text message. Texting is more dangerous than using a cell phone. At least a driver talking on a cell phone is watching the road ahead. Someone texting has his or her eyes off the road staring at their hands pecking a message on a miniature keypad.

As fleet managers, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to ensure the safety of our drivers. Second, are we doing enough as fleet managers to train our drivers to operate vehicles in a safe way? In other words, is safety your top concern? My contention is that it should be your No. 1 priority. Fleet managers have a personal stake in fleet safety. If they are derelict in their duties, they potentially could be liable for negligent entrustment and/or negligent retention of unsafe drivers.

In addition, fleet managers are feeling pressure from other corporate departments to increase fleet driver safety. For instance, corporate risk management is becoming more influential in the types of vehicles added to fleet selectors. Some corporate risk management departments dictate that only models with NHTSA 5-Star ratings can be added to a fleet selector. Another department with a growing influence on fleet safety is the Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) Department. It is responsible for employee safety issues elsewhere in the company, such as the factory floor and workstation ergonomics; why not fleet vehicles? EHS Departments are extending their reach into fleet because company drivers are one of the largest sources of Workers’ Comp claims. For instance, driver-related ergonomics issues that result in Workers’ Comp claims are on the rise at truck fleets. These include injuries from pushing, pulling, lifting, and bending often caused by upfitting specifications that did not take into account driver ergonomics. Under OSHA regulations, an employer must provide a workplace free from recognized hazards and company vehicles are considered a workplace. In addition, good ergonomics contributes to accident avoidance. Think about it, poor ergonomics reduces driver comfort, which increases fatigue, a key contributor to preventable accidents.

Fleet Safety Can Reduce Fleet Costs

Fleet safety is on the “radar” of senior management. Liability exposure resulting from preventable accidents has made senior management more sensitive to enforcing fleet safety policies. Unfortunately, this sensitivity sometimes arises after the fact following a lawsuit or a fleet-related fatality.

The annual accident rate for commercial fleets is around 20 percent, with some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, even higher. I’ve always accepted this statistic as a natural byproduct of our industry until it was put into perspective by Eric Strom, maintenance & safety product manager for GE Capital Solutions Fleet Services. Chenier used a manufacturing analogy saying any fleet-related accident should be viewed as a defect. What industry would view a 20-percent or more defect rate as acceptable? Fleets do. In addition, this defect – fleet accidents – is a controllable expense. Of the 20 percent of vehicles involved in an accident, about 40 percent were preventable accidents resulting from driver negligence. If 40 percent of your accidents are preventable, this represents a huge opportunity to reduce fleet costs. Industry studies show that accidents represent 14 percent of a fleet’s total expenses, although it is probably even higher since these studies do not take into account soft costs such as downtime, lost employee productivity, etc. Hypothetically, if fleets could eliminate all preventable accidents, the expense rate would drop to about 8 percent. It is impossible to reduce all preventable accidents, but simply cutting in half the number of preventable accidents would yield substantial cost savings. In today’s fleet management world, there are few areas where such dramatic cost reductions can be achieved.

Although fleet safety can reduce fixed fleet costs, the more important reason to make fleet safety your No. 1 job priority is because it’s the right thing to do. As good corporate citizens, it is our obligation to ensure the safety of not only our employees, but also the public with whom they interact. Your actions (or inaction) can be the difference that prevents (or contributes) to a family tragedy.

Let me know what you think.

Originally posted on Automotive Fleet

Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted in the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.