There are so many new rules and regulations around nowadays that today’s van fleet operator almost needs a degree in law as well as all the other necessary qualifications for the job. Keeping drivers and vehicles on the right side of the law is an important business and one that shouldn't be ignored because at the end of the day, in the event of a big incident you, the fleet manager, will be required to show that you've done everything necessary to keep your staff out of harm's way and out of the courts.
Behind every van fleet operation lurks the spectre of the Corporate Manslaughter Act, because bosses could well fall foul of it in the event of a fatal accident involving one of their drivers. It was passed in 2007 in order to make it easier for companies to be brought to task when the failures of senior management lead to a death.
The Act doesn't relate specifically to the transport sector, but LCV operations certainly come within its scope. Although no van fleet operators have yet been dragged before the courts, this does not mean that they can rest easy.
Under the Act, a company commits an offence if the way in which its activities are managed causes a person's death and amounts to a gross breach of the relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the dead person.
If a company is charged, it is the senior management who will face the court. Senior management is defined as the people who play significant roles in the making of decisions about how the company is managed. This clearly involves those at board level, but may also include managers who are involved at a more hands-on level if they manage a substantial part of the business.
If found guilty, a company can face an unlimited fine. However, the Sentencing Advisory Council recommends a figure of between 2.5 per cent and 10 per cent of average annual turnover.
With this in mind, let us offer you some top tips which are fairly simple to implement, but which should make sure your van fleet stays on the road and inside the law.
1 Check licences and eyesight It may seem obvious, but one of the first steps you should take to keep yourself and your drivers legal is to ensure that they actually have a licence to drive. If this sounds silly, a recent study by AXA Business Insurance found that 8 per cent of businesses fail to do this.
In a nutshell, anyone who passed the driving test before 1 January 1997 will be eligible to drive a vehicle up to 7.5 tonne gross vehicle weight. Any time after that, the limit is 3.5 tonne. Whether or not those older drivers are actually safe behind the wheel of a 7.5-tonner is another matter entirely and we'd strongly recommend a course of training before letting someone drive such a vehicle for the first time on the roads.
Regular checks also need to be made to ensure that drivers haven't had points added to their licences; a matter that has been complicated by the recent scrapping of the old paper part of the licence. We recommend six-monthly checks, which now have to be carried out via the internet with the help of each driver. The site to go to is: www.gov.uk/view-driving-licence.
And while we are at it, an eyesight check is a must too. It's amazing how many drivers can't pass the regulation test of reading a number plate at 20 metres.
2 Maintain your vans correctly One of the ‘little jobs’ that tend to be forgotten in a busy van fleet operation is the checking of items such as tyre pressures and tread depths, and windscreen washer bottles. But in reality these jobs are anything but little.
Maintenance checks should be carried out at the beginning of each day; oil, water, tyres and windscreens. It doesn't take long and could save a life.
3 Fit a weighing device Modern vans are generally getting heavier, which in turn means their payloads are getting lower. It is pretty easy to overload a long-wheelbase high roof 3.5-tonner without realising, which means your driver, and possibly you, will be prosecuted if caught. There are several excellent retrofit devices which will measure the weight of your van and warn the driver if it is overloaded and in our book they are an essential extra if heavy loads are your business.
4 Use on-board cameras These relatively new devices are worth their weight in gold and we recommend that every van should have one. They sit in the windscreen taking continuous camera ‘footage' of what's going on ahead and if they sense the van is in an emergency situation, the relevant piece of video is saved automatically, to be downloaded onto a computer later on.
They will save your drivers from any hassle in the event of a non-fault accident where the other party turns nasty and they'll also cut out any claims against you in the case of deliberate damage such as a slam-on.
5 Fit speed limiters We've all seen the dreaded white Mercedes-Benz Sprinter hogging the fast lane at 100mph and we are all aware of the dangers of such practices. Not only is speeding illegal, but it will also inevitably lead to more accidents, more wear and tear on the vehicles and the trashing of your firm's reputation if its name happens to be emblazoned on the side of the van.
Thankfully, speeding can be eradicated at a stroke by fitting speed limiters and many of the manufacturers are offering this device as an optional extra at buying time nowadays. Limits can be set by the van operator, but we recommend 70mph as a compromise between safety and practicality.
6 Beware of towing If your vans tow trailers you need to ensure that the gross vehicle weight of the van and the trailer doesn't exceed 3.5 tonne, otherwise you'll need a tachograph and an O-licence to operate if the vans are used for hire and reward and if they travel further than 50 miles from base each day.
Be aware also that younger drivers (as outlined above) won't be eligible to drive them unless they have taken an additional driving test; the B+E van and trailer test. Then they may only drive a van coupled with a trailer up to 750kg Maximum Authorised Mass (MAM), or one over 750kg MAM as long as the combined weight of the van and trailer is less than 3,500kg Gross Train Weight (GTW).
7 Watch out for drink and drug abuse Once upon a time, alcohol was the scourge of the driving fraternity, but nowadays van drivers are just as likely to be caught smoking a joint or sniffing a line of amphetamines or cocaine.
Quite frankly, if you suspect your drivers of partaking in drugs or alcohol while at work you need to get rid of them as soon as possible; a move, it must be said, that's easier talked about than done in these days of no-win/no-fee litigation.
Our only advice here is to make sure drivers know they will be sacked on the spot for taking drink or drugs at work and to keep a crafty eye on them for any signs of abuse.
8 Ban the use of mobile phones Hand-held mobile devices are illegal to use on the roads, but experts reckon that using hands-free devices causes just as much distraction. We recommend banning all phone usage on the roads to be on the safe side. This advice is particularly pertinent to all operators of vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight.
We recently interviewed Kevin Rooney, traffic commissioner for the North East of England. He told us at present, drivers caught using hand-held devices while driving face a £100 fine and three points on their driving licences. In the case of HGVs, however, the firm which employs the driver who has been caught will also be sent a letter from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) warning the firm about its future conduct.
Rooney said: “In the event of a second offence, the matter could be referred to the traffic commissioners and this could lead to the suspension of the firm's O-licence.”
9 Secure that load We see many commercial vehicles on the roads, especially flatbed trucks, carrying all sorts of equipment that isn't tied down. In the event of a crash, innocent passers-by could well be injured. So everything in the vehicle should be properly fastened and proper custom-made professional racking should be fitted where necessary.
10 Produce a driver's handbook Drivers can be a slippery bunch if not managed properly and in the event of a problem it is all too easy for them to feign innocence by pretending they didn't know about the rules. One easy way round this is to produce a company handbook with all the rules and regulations included and get each driver to sign a document to confirm that they have read it and agree to abide by its contents.
Make it clear which contraventions will result in instant dismissal and this will make sacking offending drivers much easier. If you don't have the time to generate your own, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) do a ready-made one which can be bought from here.