Organisations with otherwise robust health and safety policies risk falling short due to neglecting their commercial vehicle fleet responsibilities, a conference has heard.

Driving for Better Business – a government-backed programme from National Highways – invited commercial vehicle operators to a conference on ‘Commercial Vehicle Safety on the Strategic Road Network’.

Speaking at the event, Mark Cartwright, National Highways’ head of commercial vehicle incident prevention, explained how in his experience, the importance of taking care of staff when they were on the road often seemed to be something of a blind spot for employers.

He said: “I’m always puzzled, and I guess slightly terrified in equal amount, by the number of very health-and-safety-robust organisations we engage with who have got terrifically good, strong, mature health and safety processes and systems – their construction sites, offices, production facilities, and storage facilities are managed brilliantly – but somehow they don’t get that it extends out onto the road. They don’t get that their responsibilities to health and safety include the management of road risk. 

“Health and safety legislation is really clear. It is clear you have a personal responsibility within your organisation to manage your health and safety responsibilities. Your organisation has a legal responsibility to do so. 

“[There are also] a lot of other good reasons why you should be doing that, around reputational risk and the cost of crashes, but at the end of the day there is a legal duty for this. It’s very, very clear.”

Cartwright therefore urged fleet managers to seek help from those responsible for health and safety within their organisations.

He said: “Engage with your health and safety teams. [Road risk] is a health and safety issue at the end of the day. It’s not about road transport legislation. It’s about health and safety legislation and responsibilities. 

“My experience of this is when this happens, actually, the health and safety guys love it. This is a whole new area where they can demonstrate their expertise and talent and put their energy into, and they will see very clear differences very quickly.”

Discussing the cause of road incidents, Cartwright argued that there was almost always a human reason, rather than a vehicle-based one.

He said: “Vehicles don’t crash, people crash, they just happen to be in a vehicle at the time. Very few crashes are caused by any issues with the vehicle. It is virtually always something about the human performance side of it – distraction, impairment, fatigue, medical issues.

“Which isn’t to say the vehicle condition might not make things worse quickly, but it’s virtually always something to do with the driver.”

Relating to this topic, Andrew Drewary, managing director of Road Safety Smart, told the conference that it was not only drivers who should be investigated for their role in accidents, but other people in their organisation too – something he said was very often overlooked.

He said: “98% of investigations done internally that I have seen over the years have highlighted the driver as the only cause of the incident. I’ve still not seen an investigation identify a senior manager or a director as a cause of what’s happened in the incident. 

“60% of investigations I’ve done over the years, there is a fleet management issue as part of the cause of the incident.”

As well as taking responsibility for their own employees, Cartwright also urged fleet managers to try to influence other operators their organisation came into contact with to tighten up their road safety protocols.

He said: “It’s not just about your own fleet ­– I know so many of you operate really, really good fleets. It’s about those other fleets that you can influence. We’re thinking about your supply chain, your contractors.

“I want you to go and engage with your procurement teams, to make sure that everybody coming to work within your organisation for whatever reason is very clear of their responsibilities around managing their road risk well, and influencing those around them as well. 

“You wouldn’t hire an organisation to carry out your facilities management, for example, if you weren’t pretty sure they could do that properly, without creating risk. So why shouldn’t that expectation and responsibility extend to the way they operate out on our roads?”

Among the conference’s other speakers was Dave Conway, IMS and road safety manager for infrastructure company FM Conway, who discussed why in his view van drivers posed a particular risk in commercial fleet.

He said: “The biggest problem we have is van drivers. These are the guys who are out in their liveried vehicles embarrassing us, who don’t consider themselves to be drivers. 

“The lorry drivers are the guys that you meet and say ‘What do you do for a living?’ and they say ‘I drive a lorry’. They are proud of their work, proud of what they do. 

“The van drivers are the guys who lay bricks, or kerbstones, or asphalt. They just happen to have a van because it’s part of the tools for their job. They don’t consider themselves as professional drivers, and they are the ones that are the big risk for us.”

The event also saw Driving for Better Business launch a new series of eight ‘Toolbox Talks’ designed for van drivers, on subjects including fatigue, drivers’ hours, safe towing, distractions, severe weather, speed limits, roadworthiness, and safe loading.

Launching the videos, Cartwright said: “The Toolbox Talks are aimed at the huge number of van operators who may not have the in-house expertise or resources and have a hazy understanding of the law.”