By Tara Kneafsey, RSA’s SME Director

Insurer RSA’s SME Director, Tara Kneafsey, highlights the key risks associated with commercial vehicles and gives advice on how small business owners can avoid them.

As a leading small to medium sized enterprise (SME) insurer, we are concerned about the challenges that small business owners face. The economic downturn has heightened awareness of the risks that businesses face – regardless of the industry they operate in, their size and location. More than any other, the importance of actively managing risks in a small business – rather than waiting for a situation to arise – should not be underestimated.

When it comes to commercial vehicles, employers have a duty of care to ensure the legality of their vehicles as well as the safety of their drivers and, by extension, other road users. Post-recession, however, there are a number of temptations to employers looking to drive down costs.

Vehicle and employer roadworthiness

Cutting corners on vehicle maintenance, for example, by not sticking to the service intervals recommended by the vehicle manufacturer or failing to renew tyres at the set tread levels, is one such temptation. Doing so can lead to more road traffic accidents, increase insurance premiums or even void insurance cover and, in some circumstances, lead to prosecution. Therefore it’s crucial to carry out regular checks on all commercial vehicles.

Making sure that those you employ (and that drive for work purposes) are fit to do so is equally important. When did they last have an eye test, for instance? This is a fundamental but often overlooked fact and something that we’re committed to at RSA. As part of our Fit to Drive campaign, we’re calling on the government to put in place measures that will make our roads safer, and one way we’re doing that is by asking that all drivers submit proof of having had a recent eye test at the ten year driving licence renewal process.

The roadworthiness of commercial vehicles and drivers is therefore paramount to business continuity. With this in mind, consider:

- Implementing a structured vehicle maintenance programme, including timetabling routine services and regular checks of vehicle safety equipment, including tyres.

- Keeping a record of all vehicle checks – in the event of prosecution they can be a valuable defence tool.

- Introducing periodic driving licence checks (originals and both parts of the licence) for all drivers.

Stretching resources

Equally, some businesses might be tempted to do more with less in the current economic climate, for example by asking drivers to drive for longer periods of time than they should or by setting ambitious targets. This is a real problem. We spoke to 1,000 van, haulage, delivery and sales drivers earlier this year and as many as one in four told us they are being put under pressure to get to appointments faster and meet ambitious sales or delivery targets – leading to dangerous and in some cases illegal driving practices.

Failure to adhere to strict regulations around driver hours can have serious implications for employers and employees, with prosecutions, fines or convictions depending on the severity of the offence. Remember:

- Do driving time regulations apply to you? If so, failure to comply could result in substantial fines or even prosecution.

- Even if driving time regulations don’t apply to you, as an employer you have a duty of care to your employees and the public. Breaches to this duty have serious repercussions – for a fatal incident, this could include facing a Corporate Manslaughter conviction.

Fuel consumption and costs

Also linked to current trading conditions is the increased cost of fuel. By adapting your employees’ driving techniques, and through adequate vehicle maintenance, you can markedly reduce fuel consumption and in turn fuel costs. This includes:
- Making sure tyres are set to the correct pressure – under-inflated tyres can significantly increase fuel consumption.

- Driving at a consistent speed and not accelerating too quickly.

- Removing excessive weight from the vehicle such as roof-racks or unnecessary possessions.

- Using cruise control as this will help you maintain a steady speed.

- Not using the air conditioning system at all times – it makes the engine work harder and therefore consumes more fuel.