Imagine yourself in a typical company car, say a Ford Mondeo, that’s a decade old, and picture how much equipment even a well-specced one would have. If you were pushing the boat out, it would have come with satnav and perhaps a phone connectivity system. But what about 3D Google mapping? A hard drive for films and music? Internet?

Now do the same for a mobile phone. We’d well and truly passed the blocky, remote control stage by that point and you may well have had a colour screen, but the iPhone didn’t appear until 2007 and no-one knew what an app was.

Accident levels on UK roads increased last year after falling consistently and much of that rise is being attributed to the fact that drivers simply have too much in front of them when they’re behind the wheel. That’s a big worry for fleet operators because every driver with a modern car and phone is potentially more of a risk. So how do you manage it?

There is a wealth of well-documented tools available to the corporate sector designed to make drivers safer on the road and give businesses greater control and influence – telematics and driver training being the obvious options.

The more you know

There is always a cost attached to those elements, though, and according to the managing director of Fleet Risk Consultants, Nigel Grainger, you can’t beat a bit of old-fashioned reporting to identify the problem areas.

“It’s about good accident reporting above everything else,” he says. “Have a simple form that charts exactly what happens. Then, if you need to, use telematics to back that up. There’s a cost attached to that, but remember that analysing your accident data is free.”

Speccing a vehicle correctly from the off and being mindful of what is and isn’t essential for drivers can nip the problem in the bud and remove distractions before they even start.

“[Fleets] need to be mindful of what is a genuine safety initiative in a vehicle and what is a gimmick to create a unique selling point,” says managing director of E-training World, Graham Hurdle. “Adding more detailed imagery into satnavs, for example, is pure temptation for a driver to look at the screen rather than the road.”

Grainger agrees that you can stop the problem before it starts: “You don’t want to be speccing stuff that’s going to add to your woes as a fleet manager. You don’t need access to the internet when you’re driving. Don’t try to overcomplicate what is essentially a box on wheels.”

Smartphone apps designed to improve safety or make drivers watch their speed and cut fuel consumption appear to be a quick, easy and, above all, cheap asset because a lot of them are free. They have recently come under fire and been labelled distractions, though (see news story, page 5), and Grainger is not one to argue: “It’s a ridiculous idea. You’re then encouraging people to look at their phone while they’re driving.

“Yes, build it into the car – Volvo has a system where it displays the speed limit on the dash – that’s a fantastic idea. But a mobile phone app that says you’re accelerating a bit quickly – your natural reaction is to look at whatever’s bleeping. You’re adding distraction that you don’t need. Mobile phone apps to help improve your driving are daft.”


On the telephone

It’s been said before and there’s plenty of legislation surrounding it, but drivers using mobile phones at the wheel is one of the biggest bones of contention at the moment. Most organisations of any merit will have a policy that dictates what staff can and can’t do with their phones behind the wheel, but even after an employee has signed his or her life away, there’s still no way of guaranteeing that they’re not on the mobile for the duration of every journey anyway – hands-free or not.

The issue isn’t just with making calls either. Reading and sending text messages at the wheel is an obvious taboo and, given what your average smartphone can do, emails, social media accounts, apps, music and any other available gadgets all have the capacity to become a distraction. Even the most well behaved of drivers may well have succumbed to checking the odd message on the move.

Controlling or stopping that completely is nigh-on impossible. While you can’t guarantee that a blanket ban on all phone use during business trips will work, it can be a step in the right direction (see ‘Case study: Michelin’s blanket phone ban’, below), and more organisations are going in for them.

They’re generally perceived as a good thing by safety experts too. Hurdle comments: “I fully agree with blanket bans and see it becoming the norm. The day will come when it will be deemed highly unacceptable in the corporate sector to answer any call whilst driving and blanket bans will enforce this.”

Grainger also reckons it’s a good bet, but believes it depends on your business’s circumstances and whether you’ve had problems with phone use at the wheel before. 

“Banning phones is always the best policy. Does it work? We don’t know yet, it’s too early to tell. But if you’ve got a business with more than one person in a vehicle at the same time then ban phones because the other person can answer it.” 

One company, though, reckons it has the answer – ironically enough, with a smartphone app.

Romex DDP On Dashboard

Employee tracking specialist Romex has developed an app that can effectively lock down an employee’s phone while they’re driving, and prevent the individual from making or receiving calls and text messages or from doing anything else with their phone.

Known as the Driver Distraction Prevention (DDP) app, it uses tracking technology to detect when a phone is moving in a vehicle.

“It cuts off any calls and stops all further calls and messages from being made or received,” says the company’s partnerships director Guy Barbor. “The driver can’t do anything with it other than make a 999 call. They can make and receive calls via Bluetooth but only if the company allows it.

“When the system detects that a driver has stopped, we wait for two minutes before releasing the phone. That means drivers can’t use the phone at traffic lights, which you can still be fined for.”

However, William Fattal, co-CEO at Romex, says that it is still possible to contact employees while they’re driving after calls and texts have been blocked by the app: “If you’ve got a driver who is in, say, High Wycombe, and is travelling to Bristol, and it turns out that the person he is supposed to be meeting isn’t there, you don’t want him to travel all that way for nothing because it’s a waste of a day.

“[When someone calls the employee, the system] will send a verbal alert instructing them to pull over and call the office back when it’s safe to do so.”

The DDP app costs £50-£60 annually per phone regardless of platform (depending on how many are sold to each business) or is slightly more expensive if acquired on a monthly plan. Fattal speculates it could also bring discounts from insurers once it is established.

Malcolm Scovell

Case Study: Michelin’s blanket phone ban

Tyre giant Michelin introduced a company-wide ban on staff making or receiving phone calls during business journeys in late 2009. The firm’s UK commercial director, Malcolm Scovell, tells BusinessCar how he did it.

 “The guy running our car fleet at the time put the evidence in front of me and showed me that it’s about 10 or 20 times more likely for an accident to be serious if you were on a call or made a call within the last 30 seconds, so [the ban] was something of a no-brainer.

“We had rules in place anyway that deterred people from making calls while driving – keep calls brief, don’t stay on the phone for longer than five minutes – that sort of thing. But when you’ve got a soft policy of that nature it’s very difficult to police.

“I brought in a small team I’d heard about called Crash Course [a road safety presentation specialist supported by Staffordshire blue light services and other local organisations]. They do an hour and a quarter’s session, which leaves people in no doubt about who road safety affects. I followed that up with a message saying ‘when you leave this room, we do not want you using your phones in the car on business journeys’.

“We had only one case after that where we had to take disciplinary action. I’m certain that 99% of people don’t do it – they pull over and ring the caller back.

“If you had a two-and-a-half-hour car journey [before the ban], you might, on average, spend an hour of that on the phone, but I wasn’t asking the staff to achieve the same volume of phone calls. As a side issue, we monitor our phone bill. We also changed the phone contract, so there was hard, irrefutable data on the phone usage.

“The people I was the most worried about were the front-line regional sales managers because they’re on the phone all the time. We got around that by setting up technology to improve phone conferencing and getting much more organised at phone calls.

“Unless the guy at the top makes the decisions, the guy on the ground will think, ‘that’s just HR, I need to get the job done’ and ignore it. Companies are completely wasting their time unless someone with full authority is behind the programme. People will find excuses if they can – a phone call for work will quickly extend to answering your wife when she rings to ask if you can pick up a pint of milk on the way home.”