Tough new rules on safety management of fleets give brokers a chance to impress clients. David Faithful explains
For the first time, Britain's 720,000 fleet operators are being told how to reduce accidents and avoid the risk of prosecution.
Last year, around a third of road accidents in which 302,590 people were killed or injured, were estimated to involve someone who was at work.
Now, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a 60-point health and safety checklist to encourage them to adopt best practice risk management techniques.
And while the best-resourced fleet managers will be able to adapt to the new hard rules quickly and effortlessly, most will be left with a risk management headache of interpreting best practice and applying it to their drivers and vehicles.
No one argues that the fleet accident record is poor. The HSE estimates that occupational drivers could account for more than 20 fatalities and 250 serious injuries every week.
And the cost of road accidents to British business is in the vicinity of £2.7bn a year, and society is paying out a further £1bn. Part of this burden falls on UK motor insurers.
The government's road safety strategy aims to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on UK roads by 40% by 2010. So targeting the employers of occupational drivers is crucial.
In a 24-page guide, Driving at work: managing work-related road safety, the HSE checklist outlines companies' legal responsibilities, the benefits of managing work-related road safety and how work-related road safety should be managed.
The guide, published this month, comes almost two years after the Dykes' report into at-work road safety. Since then, at-work road safety has become the number one fleet industry issue.
Government, the police and the HSE have been prosecuting companies with charges of manslaughter and aiding and abetting driving offences in an attempt to raise the profile of work-related road safety and reduce the number of accidents.
So it is perhaps surprising that the HSE has chosen to educate employers by producing a guide, rather than publishing a full approved code of practice (ACOP), breach of which would invariably result in a health and safety prosecution. But what does the guide contain which is new to existing health and safety requirements?
The guide confirms that existing legislation, deriving from the Health and Safety at Work Act , does in fact apply to at-work road risk. It highlights a number of issues which fleet operators will now have to address before creating their at-work health and safety policies. It calls on companies to:
It is clear that the guidance requires a far higher standard of risk assessment for work-related road safety than that which the vast majority of companies currently have in place.
It would seem that only professionally drawn-up risk assessments, based on detailed vehicle and employee audits will comply. Anything else, such as off-the-shelf tick box-style risk surveys, will invariably fall short of the requirements of such thorough guidance.
While the guide highlights for the first time numerous health and safety issues, it does not actually tell fleets exactly how to develop a strategy to comply with their legal requirements.
This omission is compounded by the requirement that the risk assessment should be undertaken by a "competent person with a practical knowledge of the work activities being assessed".
Usually, ACOPs define precisely what qualifications are required by competent persons, bearing in mind that the guide is the first attempt since the Health and Safety at Work Act  to define at work road risk. But the guide is particularly vague in this area.
There is a common misconception that fleet operators are all professionally qualified and are fully conversant with the health and safety issues surrounding fleet operation.
It is true that a number of fleet managers may well be sufficiently experienced to fulfil the HSE expectations of a competent person. There are, however, a significant number of individuals whose task it is to administer fleets and whose primary role is finance or human resources.
There can be no doubt that these individuals are going to struggle to meet the competent person test. The HSE has stated publicly its position regarding enforcement. Although it accepts that it has a duty to issue guidance to employers, it has no current funding for enforcement.
It will therefore fall to the police to investigate health and safety breaches which may have contributed to a serious road traffic accident.
In this regard the HSE is working in partnership with the Metropolitan Police to develop a memorandum of understanding, under which the HSE will be consulted by the police if there are any issues over an employers' responsibilities. Ultimately it will be for the civil and criminal courts to interpret and enforce the new guidance.
Jeremy Hay, a director of independent fleet risk assessment company Risk Answers, says: "While the guide is useful in raising issues its weakness is that it does not tell companies what is expected of them in the eyes of the law.
"Nevertheless, all fleets should obtain a copy of the guidance to compare with their current assessments and policies.
"The enforcing authorities will hold the guide up as best practice and any fleet which fails to act is, in the event of an at-work driving accident, likely to face criminal prosecution or a civil claim for damages by an injured employee or third party."
Only time will tell whether the HSE guide is going to achieve its aim of merely raising employer awareness, or whether the guide will be hijacked by police and lawyers wishing to penalise the employers of fleet drivers.