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RISK MANAGEMENT: Risky business - winning over drivers while improving safety

Date: 27 June 2012

Jack Carfrae joins a group of company car drivers on a risk management course to explore how worthwhile safety training is to businesses - and employees

How do you get a company car driver to comply with modern health and safety rules on every journey? The answer is you don't. Even if you could get one employee to be completely conscientious all of the time, the chances of extending that to a whole fleet are slim to none.

Risk management and ticking the duty of care box are massive responsibilities for businesses, especially with the all-consuming litigation culture that continues to increase its presence in the UK.

Corporate driver training is one of the solutions, but getting the message through to drivers, even with a professional course, is no guarantee that they are going to walk away having soaked up sufficient information from something their superiors have made them sit through. Moreover, such courses are often deemed by employees to be little more than a formality in order to receive or continue running a company car.

Ultimate Car Control runs courses tailored for the corporate sector that are billed as a blanket service to render fleets compliant with the Corporate Manslaughter Act. The Excellence in Professional Driving (EPD) programme is claimed to reduce risk among staff and alter their approach to driving with a combination of theory and practical driving exercises.

Founder and former British Touring Car Championship driver Robb Gravett says fleet managers and company bosses are not convinced of the benefits until they see a session for themselves: "Nobody buys it until they see it. When they see it, they buy it. We're working from the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the only things that have changed are the draconian penalties off the back of not being compliant under statute. It's complicated for companies to understand what they need, but we sell advice, not fear." The programme operates out of 13 sites in the UK and costs £300 per driver, although Gravett says discounts can be arranged for group bookings.

On the morning of the course it's clear that the majority of attendees - who have been signed up by their employers - are sceptical. When asked why they are on the course, some reply "the company told me to" and "we're going to be taught how to drive".

The bottom line, according to trainer Vicky Lovell, is for drivers to be "slightly lower risk when they leave than when they arrive". Lovell, who has been an advanced driving instructor among numerous other training roles, heads up the morning of the course, which consists of an informal classroom tutoring session.

"The idea is to challenge your perceptions about what's safe and what's dangerous and you'll have a better idea," she continues. "For example, you're much less likely to be killed in snow. A T-junction is the most likely place to be hit in the door at 50-60mph - but drivers will be doing those speeds when conditions are warm and sunny. In snow and ice, you'll be travelling much slower - you're massively at risk when conditions are good."

Thought-provoking nuggets such as this make up the first half of the day and they aren't limited to staying safe on the road, as the subject matter strays to what employers should and shouldn't be doing. When asked, none of the attendees had a clue about the intricacies of their companies' insurance policies, how organisations (and the police) can check if a driver is required to wear corrective lenses or not, and how smartphones track a drivers' progress and can give away where a driver has been, how long they've been in the car for and their speed.

Lovell says that the way to get employees to retain what they're taught is to show them the benefits, rather than tell them what to do, but there's also a degree of shock tactics that comes into it: "You've got to sell them the benefits. We don't force anyone to do anything, we just show them what's better to do. The thing is, if I talk about a coroners court [which will be involved in the event of a fatality on the road] then there isn't one person in the room who isn't listening."

The afternoon consists of braking and steering exercises in a fleet of Volvos. Course-goers are taught to do as much of their braking in a straight line as possible in the event of an emergency stop, only turning at the last possible second, which is first demonstrated by the trainers before the students have a go under supervision.

According to Lovell, this is the single best way to approach an accident on the road: "If you are going into a [crash] scene and there's no way out, go in forwards. Most drivers brake and steer into it. All crash features in a vehicles are designed for a crash going in forwards and it can mean the difference between surviving well or dying. Humans are also designed to handle front impact better and this approach also leaves you with more options later in the incident scene."

Exercises to demonstrate the vehicles' electronic driving aids follow, allowing drivers to become accustomed to how a car feels in an emergency, the idea being that the necessary safety methods gradually become second nature.

By mid-afternoon, the cynical mood among the company car drivers on the course is all but gone, as most of them have absorbed sufficient information and enjoyed themselves enough in the cars to the point where they at least seem to be becoming believers.

For the final exercise of the day, trainers ask attendees to each put two cones down to illustrate how much distance they think a car needs to stop from a steady 30mph and 50mph before a pedestrian. Perhaps predictably, even the most optimistic of estimates is way off, as the car takes far longer to stop on both occasions, and it's this that hits home the most. All of the participants are surprised, to the point where one of the biggest disbelievers from earlier in the day exclaims: "I'm shocked at how far that is."

Despite its obvious merits, the majority of company car drivers initially view any risk management course, even in its most productive and entertaining form, as a tedious, box-ticking exercise from the outset. How the event is marketed to employees beforehand is something that needs work within the industry - and that isn't likely to change unless fleet managers and their superiors sell it to staff as a carrot rather than a stick.

It may be a day out of the office but pitching a risk management course to staff with the right attitude has the potential to cover your back from a duty of care perspective. Moreover, it means they're more likely to take on board what they're told on the day.