Safety in the Driver's Seat

By Carolyn Hirschman Feb 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, February 2004 A dose of driving instruction can help employees steer clear of costly traffic accidents.

The highest risk of accidental death that workers encounter every day is the one that they face if they drive on the job or to and from work: a fatal traffic accident.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of fatal work injuries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, 1,372 worker fatalities—or about one-fourth of the 5,524 total—were caused by traffic accidents. The traffic toll for workers was substantially higher than the 873 deaths caused by contact with objects or equipment, or the 840 fatalities attributed to workplace violence.

Although both total worker fatalities and total deaths caused by traffic accidents have declined slightly in recent years, safety experts say there’s plenty of room for improvement. It’s in employers’ interests, they add, to try to enhance their workers’ driving skills through safety-conscious fleet policies and programs, including driver training.

High Costs of Inaction

Such training, often a combination of classroom education and behind-the-wheel practice, can help employees become safer drivers, experts say, and thus reduce employers’ risk of getting sued for traffic accidents caused by their employees.

“Companies without traffic safety programs and policies are hugely liable,” says Kathryn Lusby-Treber, executive director of the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), a Vienna, Va.-based employer group that promotes safe-driving practices.

Such programs may help protect employers from lawsuits under the emerging legal doctrine of “negligent entrustment,” which is generating high-dollar awards and settlements. Negligent entrustment refers to an employer’s liability for injuries or property damage resulting from an employee’s business use of a vehicle when the employer knew—or should have known—that the employee was unfit to drive.

It’s worthwhile to check the motor vehicle records of all prospective hires and current employees whose jobs require that they drive.

Lusby-Treber and other traffic safety experts note that employers pay steep prices for motor vehicle accidents involving their employees—more than $50 billion per year, some studies show. Beyond the direct costs of vehicle repair, lost work time, medical bills and workers’ compensation and disability claims are indirect costs such as lower productivity, temporary replacements and increases in automobile insurance premiums.

Workers’ comp claims for injuries related to motor vehicle accidents averaged $22,200 in the 2000-2001 period, compared with $13,719 for all workers’ comp claims, according to an analysis by the National Council on Compensation Insurance. The costs include medical insurance and workers’ comp costs, rehabilitation expenses, lost productivity and temporary replacements.

To emphasize the importance of workers driving safely, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced last October an alliance with NETS “to provide employers of all sizes with access to information and resources” on traffic safety.

OSHA said the resources will be designed to help employers “create effective workplace traffic safety programs, develop and disseminate materials that promote safe driving practices, and work on electronic assistance tools for workplace traffic safety programs, including fleet safety programs.”

At a minimum, organizations should develop a vehicle policy that sets clear expectations of employees. (For more on such initiatives, see “Detail Your Auto Policy,” HR Magazine, September 2002.)

Getting Under Way

Doing nothing to improve workers’ driving skills is not an option for employers because it leaves them vulnerable to legal action, safety experts say.

Employers can choose from a variety of options for traffic-safety education, from low-cost CD-ROMs and Internet-based information to high-end customized programs and one-on-one training. The choice depends on the company’s goals and budget.

Some companies, especially large ones with many employees who drive in their work, provide classroom and behind-the-wheel training offered by organizations such as the National Safety Council, the American Automobile Association (AAA), independent safety consultants and fleet management firms. Instructors are often retired police officers and usually possess a certificate issued by AAA, the Safety Council or a similar organization. There is no standard certification for instructors, however, and their experience levels vary.

In deciding who should receive training, employers might choose employees who do the most driving, or those who have the most accidents or moving violations. Some companies train everyone who drives on the job, including salespeople, delivery drivers and utility-truck drivers. Other employers focus on new hires.

In Newport News, Va., the Waterworks Department’s new employees take a self-paced course on CD-ROM, then head for the road with an evaluator to show what they’ve learned, says Milton Cummings, the department’s safety and training coordinator. “If we see some technique to focus on, we discuss that” during the hour-and-a-half drive on city streets and highways, he says.

“This works well for us because when employees come on board, we can do the driver training right away and have them on the road right away,” Cummings says, rather than have new hires wait up to two months for the next scheduled safe-driving class for all new city employees.

About three-fourths of the department’s 377 employees—meter readers, customer service representatives, construction personnel and others—drive cars, pickup trucks and maintenance vehicles on the job. Since starting its driver education program in the early 1990s, the department has seen vehicle incidents drop from a high of 58 in 1990 to 27 in 2002.

“Everyone should go through something basic,” at least to raise awareness, says John Garber of Garber & Associ-ates LLC, an HR and risk-management consulting firm in Harleysville, Pa. Garber has served on the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Health, Safety & Security Committee.

Instruction Methods

Safe driving is a matter of both skills and attitude, says Phil Moser, national sales manager of Advanced Driver Training Services Inc., a company in King of Prussia, Pa., that trains drivers nationwide. “Drivers need to have the attitude that ‘the most important thing I’m going to do today is arrive home safely,’ ” he says.

Training should focus on defensive driving, says Lynn Berberich, vice president of vehicle and customer services for PHH Arval, a fleet management firm based in Sparks, Md. Participants should be taught how to avoid accidents, not just what to do when accidents happen, she says. “What you want to do is modify behavior.”

Training regimens vary with employers’ needs. Least expensive—generally less than $100 per person—is classroom-only training, typically a half-day or a full-day session on topics such as driver behavior, preventable collisions, road hazards and driving in bad weather.

The National Safety Council offers classes of four to eight hours in defensive driving taught by instructors certified by the council. Fees vary by state and instructor; an online version of the course costs $41.25 per person.

Similarly, local AAA clubs offer driver education. For example, the AAA Mid-Atlantic Driving School offers a $55-per-person Fleet Driver Improvement program, an eight-hour class for employees who drive company vehicles. Those who complete the class earn a certificate that in many states can generate a discount of 5 percent to 15 percent on commercial automobile insurance premiums, says Rich Chidester, the driving school’s manager of field operations.

Behind-the-wheel training, often added to classroom sessions for a full day of instruction, costs more but is also more effective, experts say. For generally $100 or more per person, an instructor rides with three or four participants at a time in the vehicles they drive at work. Training takes place in empty parking lots, on local highways and streets, and on modified courses with equipment such as cones and “skid cars,” which simulate skidding on ice. Employees practice acceleration, braking, backing up and other maneuvers.

The mistakes that drivers make often are evident even before they start the car, many instructors say. For example, “a lot of people sit incorrectly in the vehicle,” either too close to the steering wheel or too far from it, Chidester says. Many drivers neglect to adjust their mirrors properly.

On the road, students learn to “scan” for other cars, pedestrians and road hazards. The course addresses common mistakes such as speeding and following other cars too closely. In general, the emphasis is on doing everything possible to stay out of harm’s way and avoid accidents -- including the dangerous circumstances that other drivers may create.

One company that is sold on the need for defensive-driving classes for employees is Jaynes Corp., a construction contractor based in Albuquerque, N.M. The company’s greatest risks stem from the operation of its 162 vehicles, which are driven more than 2 million miles a year in four states, says safety director Terry Boekeloo. The classes planned for 380 Jaynes employees are part of the company’s proactive approach to accident prevention, Boekeloo says.

In general, those who take driver-safety instruction learn “common-sense things people don’t give a lot of attention to,” says driver-training expert Moser. He and others in the field now say, for example, that putting your hands on the steering wheel in the “10 and 2” positions of a clock face isn’t recommended because deployment of an air bag could break a driver’s arm. The current recommendation is “9 and 3.”

Classes usually end with a written test or a checklist evaluation for each participant. Some instructors, at the client’s request, submit reports to the company’s HR and fleet managers.

Employees who prove to be poor drivers can be offered one-on-one behind-the-wheel training. If that fails, the employee’s driving privileges for the company can be revoked.

Does It Make a Difference?

Safety experts agree that training alone does not prevent accidents. “Education is not enough,” Lusby-Treber says. “People can know how to drive safely, but they don’t always feel compelled to do it.” Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va., organization funded by insurance companies and aimed at reducing traffic deaths and injuries, says, “It’s very hard to change driver behavior.” Nonetheless, driver education can complement strict law enforcement and corporate incentives for accident-free driving.

An investment in driver training generally pays off in the long run. NETS cites a Liberty Mutual Group study that shows that every dollar spent on safety of any kind has a return of at least $3 for employers.

Employers should wait a year or so after driver training to determine if it has in fact paid off, experts suggest. A comparison of annual accident rates before and after training is helpful, as is tracking workers’ compensation claims, auto claims and other costs attributable to traffic accidents. In addition, employers can test employees’ knowledge of state traffic laws and company vehicle policies.

Essentially, driver education is a matter of balancing costs and benefits. The way many safety experts see it, the choice is clear: Employers can spend money on the costs of traffic accidents—or on traffic accident prevention.

Carolyn Hirschman is a business writer based in Rockville, Md. She has written for a variety of business publications and has covered workplace issues since 1991.

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