Companies found to be operating sub-standard LCV fleets could be hit by financially crippling penalties under tough new guidelines covering health and safety and corporate manslaughter offences, which were introduced by the Ministry of Justice’s Sentencing Council in February 2016.

That was one of the key messages to delegates at the Association of Car Fleet Operators conference, which took place earlier this month at the De Vere Harben conference centre in Newport Pagnell.

The severity of the potential punishments should “focus the minds” of fleet managers on implementing best practice in their van operations, according to Mark Cartwright, the head of the Freight Transport Association’s Van Excellence scheme.

Cartwright told delegates that corporate ‘fault’ is now clearly defined, with fines linked to a company’s turnover and an increased likelihood of custodial sentences. An organisation with revenue of at least £50m found guilty of committing health and safety offences faces a fine of up to £10m, while a firm turning over £10m-£50m could be hit with a £4m fine.

Businesses with turnover of £2m-£10m are liable for fines of up to £1.6m, and those generating under £2m can be fined a maximum of £450,000.

Convicted individuals, such as a fleet manager judged to be responsible for a driver, or a van, at fault can face up to two years in prison.

Companies convicted of corporate manslaughter risk an unlimited fine, although the guidelines state a range of £180,000-£20m depending on the size of the business.

The Sentencing Council states the aim of the guidelines is to establish “a consistent, fair and proportionate approach” to sentencing.

Cartwright claimed a failure by van fleets to adopt a recognised industry standard, such as Van Excellence, could be viewed by the courts as an “aggravating factor” when considering punishment. He warned: “Fleets should adopt a national standard because if they don’t and something goes badly wrong they will be held responsible.”

As an example, Cartwright said that if a fleet manager has gathered telematics evidence of an employee consistently driving dangerously but fails to take remedial action before the driver causes an incident, a court of law could find the company culpable.

A business could also be held responsible, he claimed, if it is found to have put profit before investing in safety, or if it has ignored concerns about its fleet operation raised by staff.

While Cartwright said it is unlikely the Department for Transport will introduce more HGV-style regulation to the van sector, he struck a cautionary note in saying: “If we don’t do stuff properly, we’ll get stuff imposed on us.”

He said the police and Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency will step up enforcement of existing laws and urged fleet managers to take the lead in adopting a hands-on approach to their LCVs, carrying out regular licence checks and inspecting vehicles’ roadworthiness daily. Above all, he said managers should treat LCV drivers as professionals – as they do with truck drivers.

Cartwright pointed out that 49.7% of vans fail the MoT first time and calculated that as many as 1.6 million of the four million LCVs in the UK could be unroadworthy. He said businesses leasing vans should ensure the provider carries out the MoTs, rather than assuming they do, and added that companies and individuals should refuse to employ firms – builders, for example – that use sub-standard or overloaded vans.

Stephen Turner, sales director of conversion specialist Bott, said enforcement officers increasingly ask to see Vehicle Type Approval documentation when undertaking roadside vehicle checks. He told delegates: “Van fleets need to be able to prove to the enforcement authorities they have done everything possible in terms of operating a vehicle in a compliant manner.”

Andy Hill, commercial vehicle manager at Lex Autolease, which runs a fleet of 100,000 CVs, warned that pleading ignorance is no defence under the law, and added that a conviction for corporate manslaughter could be followed by compensation claims in the civil courts.

He admitted staying legal is a “minefield”, with legislation governing everything from payload, tyre condition, speed limits for vans, towing and overloading to drink- and drug-driving and licence checks.
“Drivers should not cut corners,” he said, and advocated a daily walk-around ‘FLOWER’ check covering fuel, lights, oil, water, electrics and rubber.

He stressed that fleets must keep an audit trail to prove checks have been made and defects fixed.
Malcolm Maycock, MD of the Licence Bureau and chairman of the Association for Driving Licence Verification, said the compliance journey “starts with knowing your drivers and what they drive”.

While legislation states firms should validate employees’ licences “regularly”, Maycock said six-monthly checks should be the absolute minimum, and more frequent checks should be made for drivers with points on their licences. He also recommended employers ensure staff take frequent eye tests.

John Davidge, head of fleet technical at Cardinus Risk Management, claimed driver training is vital in reducing the number of LCV crashes because many staff come into the role with no prior experience of driving such vehicles. He pointed out that most incidents occur when reversing and said: “Drivers need to know what they have to do to stop those sort of collisions.”

He advised fleet managers minimise risks by encouraging drivers to reverse park, and highlighted poor observation as one of the most significant contributory factors in crashes.

“Effective training makes up for a lack of experience in novice drivers,” Davidge said. He advised fleet operators to obtain signed health declarations from drivers as an additional way for the company to demonstrate to insurers it has taken all possible precautions to reduce risk.

High standards demanded

Customers are increasingly demanding evidence of best practice in LCV fleets when choosing their suppliers, claimed Graham Short, fleet manager for Norfolk-based filtered water company Zip Water UK, whose fleet includes 66 vans, and chairman of ACFO’s East Anglia region.

Short says van operators could demonstrate their commitment to best practice through accreditation to initiatives such as the FTA’s Van Excellence programme and the national Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme.  

“FORS seems to be the standard required by many of our customers,” explained Short. “Businesses that are accredited to [such] initiatives. want to work with organisations that are similarly accredited.”

FORS’ principal consultant Ian Vincent claimed accreditation to the scheme is often a contractual requirement for suppliers, and added: “Businesses can [feel] safe and assured that such organisations have been audited to a standard they can be confident about.”

Short argued that corporate image is critical and described vans as mobile advertising boards displaying a business’s name and contact details.

“It is a risk to business if a van is driven badly or is in poor condition,” he said. “A company’s image and reputation is at stake. Vans can be your best advert or your worst.”