Despite a decline in the number of insurance claims from motor vehicle accidents in the past years, insurance claims for bodily injury have increased significantly. This trend raises the issue of safety in motor vehicles. And it should prompt fleet managers and drivers to look at the causes of accidents in an attempt to help better manage the risks associated with driving.

According to industry experts, there are several elements contributing to the growth in claims, but I believe that the growth of in-car technology should lead to a change in the way fleet managers assess the risk of their drivers.

Evidence of the cause of accidents points towards driver error. In 76% of road accidents in the UK, human error is solely to blame. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), driver negligence, carelessness and absentmindedness are major factors in the cause of accidents, and most road accidents could be prevented.

The number of cars on UK roads has increased -– from 101,000 in 1901 to over 27 million today. Because of this and other cultural factors, the role of the motor vehicle has undoubtedly changed, over time, from mode of transport to mobile office. Drivers spend more time in their cars now than before, largely due to heavier traffic and the need to travel. According to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), journeys by road are becoming slower and more unreliable, causing problems for business and stress to drivers. This has undoubtedly been a factor in the increasing use of mobile phones in the car.

Use your phone at your peril

However, using a phone while driving greatly increases the risk of having an accident. A recent study carried out by Aston University shows that drivers were significantly less responsive to road traffic conditions when on the phone. This would suggest that any drivers using phones should be subject to higher insurance premiums, as they are in a group that runs a higher risk of being involved in a collision.

Heart rates increase during phone conversations, indicating an increase in stress levels, and studies have shown that the majority of calls undertaken by drivers are intense, complex, business-related and urgent. Psychologists have established that drivers under stress are more likely to have an accident.

However, I suggest looking at the bigger picture before pushing for any new legislation. Mobile phones are an essential part of life for many of the UK's company car drivers. Cutting off their communication will have a hugely adverse effect on the way a lot of business is conducted. However, it adds a whole new dimension to the risk management process when the fleet driver spends a significant proportion of his or her travel time on the telephone.

Recent research published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirmed that one in five people in the UK suffers from high levels of work-related stress. Taking away the valuable in-car time used to make business calls while travelling to and from meetings and the office, could put drivers under more pressure and stress, and increases the risk of an accident.

Mobile phone manufacturers such as Nokia, Phillips, Motorola and Nortel have pre-empted government legislation with the introduction of the Voice Activated Dialling (VAD) facility on their top-of-the-range phones. This allows drivers to conduct conversations without taking their eyes away from the road.

However, according to Rospa, it is not the technology of the phone that causes the distraction, but the conversation itself. This school of thought leads us in some potentially disturbing directions. Will we no longer be allowed to speak in the car? Will taxi drivers or the emergency services no longer be able to use their CB equipment? Fleet managers need to understand the risk involved in phone use, but they also need to deal with it less radically. How far down this road can we sensibly go?

Mobile phones are just one of the many distractions which may cause accidents on the road. As vehicle technology advances, we are seeing more and more in-car devices with which drivers interact. Surely, if mobile phones are to be banned then devices such as CD changers, satellite navigation systems and traffic scanners should also be taken into account?

Risk assessment – the future

Insurers currently calculate premiums based on factors such as age, where you live, what car you drive, your occupation and your gender. The future may well see a move towards other assessable factors such as the level of mobile phone usage, the value of your car stereo, whether you smoke and perhaps even the “stress level” of your occupation.

There are many other distractions to the driver's attention, both inside and outside the vehicle, but what role do they have to play in causing accidents? From the heated front seats to the electronic wizardry on the dashboard, there are innumerable technological developments that can potentially take the driver's eye off the road. But by the same token those developments have aided the transformation of the car into a second office for many drivers.

Meanwhile, technological features such as airbags and anti-lock braking systems have improved car safety; the very latest systems are alarms designed to counteract drivers falling asleep at the wheel, which is a very real threat for those who drive long distances or at night.

The growth of in-car technology has greatly complicated risk management, but the basics remain valid: drivers must remain clear-headed and focused on the road. For company car drivers, their fleet managers must keep a keen eye on the risks those drivers face, whether from driving too long or from too many electronic distractions. The in-car games console might be fine for the kids in the back, but not for the parent at the wheel.