When I was growing up in the 1980s, my dad was a sales rep, whose working life revolved around a beige Vauxhall Cavalier. The Cav had become known as the quintessential rep-mobile of the time: a worthy all-rounder, reliable, good on the motorway and fitted with modern features perfect for long-distance drivers, such as a radio cassette player and… not much else. There was a large storage bin under the central console, and I suspect this must have been what really swung the purchasing decision for many fleet buyers, as it could easily hold a flask of coffee as well as a healthy supply of small change, essential for feeding parking meters and making those urgent payphone calls.
Fast forward a decade or so and that multi-use storage bin was starting to look like a pointless waste of cockpit real estate. Why? The discovery of decent coffee in disposable cups. Gone were the days of stopping to enjoy an upturned Thermos lid full of tepid Maxwell House perched on that flat bit on top of the dashboard. Not only was the coffee better if you bought it freshly brewed, if your car had a built-in cup holder, you could circumvent the whole tiresome, time-wasting coffee break thing and just drink on the move. Definitely a driver distraction, but nevertheless, car manufacturers catered for the demand by cramming cup holders into every available interior moulding they could imagine.
Another couple of decades on, and it’s become ever clearer just how the needs and desires of business drivers have been the motivating force behind many of the developments in vehicle design and technology. Whatever their occupation, those who drive for work increasingly rely on mobile phones to stay in touch, and on satellite navigation systems to find their way around unfamiliar locations and stay abreast of traffic problems, and the view that these features are essential has helped to bring them into the mainstream of vehicle specifications. Businesses are keen to supply their drivers with all the tools they need to do their job most effectively, but these tools can also reinforce a culture of driving while distracted in the name of doing one’s job.
Tony Greenidge, our business development director, explained the issue really well in his presentation The Changing Face of Driver Risk, at this year’s ONECPD Road Safety Conference on 30 January, attended by representatives of businesses, local authorities and academics with an interest in road safety policy. The issue of managing driver risk and providing training for fleet drivers is often overlooked by businesses due to lack of awareness of the scale of risk to employees. Tony offered a thought-provoking look at some of the facts:
This last point really struck me as a fairly grave statistic as far as business driving is concerned, and it represents one of our major challenges at IAM RoadSmart. As an organisation promoting road safety, our recommendation is of course to avoid any kind of phone use when driving, but given that it is not illegal there are many businesses who are reluctant to advise against it, seeing it as an essential tool for their fleet drivers to stay in touch.
Another challenge is in convincing businesses to commit to a modest financial investment in risk-assessing and training their drivers, but this is where things get a bit easier, in that the potential financial benefits are much easier to quantify. Fleet News’s annual FN50 study found that more than a third of all fleet vehicles are returned to their leasing company with billable damage, averaging £308 per car, and £414 per van (ironically a lot of this is down to the cost of replacing parking sensors in the bumpers!) These costs are usually unforeseen by fleet owners, but they still need to fund the repairs. If only they could stop their drivers from having those scrapes in the first place, maybe through expert training…
Tony clearly knows from his career working with business fleets that managing costs is usually top priority, and if they can be convinced to make the commitment to driver training with the promise of reduced costs, then the benefits to road safety will follow as a by-product, and that’s no bad thing.
On the subject of welcome fringe benefits, many popular saloon cars of today are capable of achieving over 60mpg without even trying, which I reckon is about double what the old Cavalier averaged (admittedly not helped by my dad’s ham-fisted driving). The focus by businesses on managing spiralling fuel costs has no doubt been one of the driving forces behind improved vehicle efficiency, and the make-or-break test for many new technologies will always be the level of acceptance by fleet buyers. And, just like the humble cup holder, these technologies will continue to shape our motoring landscape.