Driving as part of your job can seriously damage your health and your employer's premiums. Mike Cooper looks at the risks and at neat ideas to reduce them.

Manufacturers have made huge improvements in driver and passenger safety and vehicle security in recent years. Vehicle alarms and engine immobilisers; airbags and ABS - these are making motoring safer and more secure than ever before. Thefts of newer vehicles have plummeted, and road deaths have fallen from 5,800 in 1990 to 3,421 last year.

But behind the headlines are the 400,000 people hospitalised each year as a result of traffic accidents. 46,000 of these injuries are serious. Fatalities have fallen because of car safety improvements. But driver behaviour remains a major hazard. This is despite efforts to change behaviour through drink drive campaigns and, more recently, a clamp-down on speeding.

Company vehicle drivers are most at risk. Motorists who clock up more than 25,000 miles per year face a 1:1,250 risk of being seriously injured in a road traffic accident in that year. For drivers in the 30,000 miles category the risk rises sharply to 1:250. At these odds, high-mileage company drivers face almost the same level of danger as workers in high-risk occupations such as mining and deep sea fishing. In contrast, the average private motorist who drives up to 12,000 miles per year has a 1:8,000 chance of serious injury.

Risk management in the fleet motor market, in the words of David Abbott from Rarrigini & Rosso is reducing the risks people expose themselves to through their driving behaviour. "Human error is a factor in traffic accidents because drivers fail to exercise sufficient concentration or to perceive hazards in the correct way. Driver training can be effective in changing the company motorist's thought processes."

Management has a key role to play, Abbott explains. "We review the culture of a fleet operator, as management can often influence the behaviour of fleet drivers. Fleet motorists face a range of pressures: the truck driver who has to get his load delivered at all costs, or the overtired sales representative who, rather than staying in a hotel, chooses to drive home from a business trip.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) now investigates all fatal work-related motoring accidents. This has led to more prosecutions against negligent fleet operators. The result is that company directors are now under a higher duty of care towards their fleet drivers and can be held personally liable for breaches of safety.

Driver training can have a real impact on fleet motor claims. One haulage firm has reduced its claims ratio from 140% to just 17% following the application of intensive driver training.

Driver training can also mean direct cost-savings: hauliers can save up to £2,500 in fuel per year for each truck, after drivers have been trained not to waste fuel by racing up to red traffic signals.

Brokers can help clients improve their claims record. An improved claims record will make the client more likely to seek renewal business from the broker. And for the fleet operator, the savings can outweigh the increased cost of hardening rates in the motor fleet market.

Ron Munro of Zurich Insurance underlines the costs of bad driving: "Motor fleet is underwritten on a cost plus basis. The worse a fleet's claims record, the higher its premiums will be." And there are other costs which, Munro says, are often ignored: "It has been estimated that the cost of an accident is ten times the actual damage. As well as insurance costs, there are the costs of lost orders, lost production time, and increased staff absence".

Munro outlines three main tools used by insurers to address risk management weaknesses: driver assessment, driver training and vehicle monitoring. This last approach can include electronic surveillance, although he says the more usual method is to use the fleet company's claims record.

Roger Ball, commercial motor insurance manager at Allianz Cornhill, highlights the pressures on drivers as a contributory factor in traffic accidents. He points out that fleet drivers, and particularly hauliers, are under increasing pressure to work harder and longer hours. Drivers are required to make deliveries just-in-time, as manufacturers or retailers reduce their reliance on warehousing.

The effect is that the average lorry load is decreasing, but drivers are making more frequent deliveries.

Ball says that the increading number of lorry journeys heightens the importance of risk management for hauliers. "We are heavily involved in driver training, and use a number of speciailist companies to evaluate the skills of fleet drivers."

Allianz Cornhill currently applies risk management on a selective basis. "We tend to take a bespoke approach to each risk, as risk management is just one of a number of underwriting tools we use."

However, Ball warns of a recent disturbing trend that could set back the improving safety record of fleet operators. "More and more fleet operators are being tempted into taking reduced cover or higher excess levels in order to offset rising premiums in the market."

Zurich Commercial has adopted the approach of reducing costs by settling claims quickly. It has developed a fast-track programme for settling whiplash injury claims from motor accidents, which it estimates has reduced damages payouts by 25%: a £2m saving by the end of 2000. The programme speeds up the settlement of claims by providing rapid rehabilitation treatment to whiplash victims, thereby reducing long-term damage and reducing claims costs.

As with all risk management, lateral thinking and innovation will deliver the rewards.

Mike Cooper gets fit for the road
After seven years of accident-free motoring, I thought I had little need to polish up my driving skills. But this smug opinion was put to the test when I signed up for a defensive driving course with Paul Ripley Drive.

From its base at Brands Hatch, the company coaches fleet drivers and, more excitingly, test drivers for manufacturers including Aston Martin and Cosworth.

My defensive driving instructor was called Kevin. He concentrated on road positioning, speed and anticipating hazards. Kevin's key to better driving is to read the road ahead, and communicate with other drivers - for example by making greater use of your car's brake lights to signal that you are slowing down when approaching a junction.

Kevin's memorable sayings include "Cold car, cold head" : this means that a car with white exhaust fumes should be treated with caution as neither car nor driver have had time to warm up yet.

"Don't say hello if there is no-one in", means don't indicate if there is no other traffic.

At my debriefing Paul Ripley discussed the role of defensive driving. He said the majority of traffic accidents were caused by rear-end shunts at junctions or roundabouts.

"The key to defensive driving is adequate spacing and driver awareness - that is anticipating other drivers' actions."

He went on to outline steps fleet operators can take towards a safer driving regime.

It can begin by senior managers issuing their fleet drivers with a copy of the Highway Code accompanied by a letter which emphasises the importance to the firm of safe driving. This could be followed by a series of safety seminars that cover basic driving skills such driving at the right speed.

The third step to improving driving safety is for the fleet operator to check their drivers' licences every six months - to detect any driving convictions or endorsements.