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Heading for a crash: Duty of care for work-related driving

Some employers don't know their responsibilities when asking an employee to drive for work

The recent tragic case of the lorry driver who killed a family of four while using his mobile phone was widely reported and has led to calls for tougher penalties. However, an overlooked aspect to this case is the risks employers are exposed to when asking employees to drive for work purposes.

Employers are under a duty of care for the health and safety of employees and others who may be affected by their work activities. This includes driving in a work-related capacity. Breach of this duty can result in criminal prosecution with substantial fines and serious reputational damage.

The risks are significant. More than 150 vehicles driven on company business crash every day. Every year there are 14,000 road deaths and serious injuries involving people at work. Research carried out by the Licence Bureau estimates that 24,000 business drivers are driving illegally, with employers failing to undertake basic checks such as ensuring that licences and insurance are valid.

The Health and Safety Executive defines a work-related journey as any driving involving a work task that is not simply travelling to and from the employee's usual place of work. This could include visiting clients or suppliers, or working from a different office. A significant number of staff who wouldn’t ordinarily be considered as driving for work make irregular work-related journeys by car, which is where employers are often caught out.

A common misconception is that there is a distinction between employer- and employee-owned vehicles. Employers have the same duty of care under health and safety law for staff who drive their own vehicles for work (‘grey fleet’) as they do for employees who operate company-owned, -leased or -hired vehicles.

Prosecutions of employers for driving-related incidents can be brought under a range of legal provisions, including the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and in serious cases resulting in death the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Employers can be also prosecuted if they ‘cause or permit’ offences under the Road Traffic Act 1988, including causing or permitting a person to drive a vehicle in a dangerous condition, or without a valid licence, or without ‘business use’ insurance. This can be particularly challenging in the context of employee-owned vehicles and puts the onus on HR to ensure that the correct policies are in place and are properly adhered to.

Following a collision, the police and Health and Safety Executive must consider the liability of the employer. Directors and other managers can be interviewed under caution and papers and equipment can be confiscated as evidence. They will also look at what HR policies are in place and how rigorously they are followed. Directors can face corporate disqualification and fines can have a serious economic impact.

So what should HR professionals be doing to ensure that their organisations stay on the right side of the law? Organisations need to ensure that they have clear and robust work-related road safety policies that include licence checks for all drivers, insurance checks for ‘grey fleet’ drivers, a mobile phone and in-car technology policy, standards of driving criteria and a health and fitness to drive policy. Equally, HR professionals need to actively promote road safety and ensure policies are communicated to all staff. Simply having such policies but permitting a culture where employees take calls while driving or routinely speed to meet tight schedules is not sufficient to provide protection from the law.

Daniel Hart is solicitor-advocate at Nockolds