Picture this: You run a small business with 10 employees, it is lunchtime, and the food order you called in 40 minutes ago is ready. One of your employees offers to pick it up. He leaves the office, gets in his car, and heads toward the restaurant.
En route, your employee gets a text message from a friend. He takes his eyes off the road and BAM—rear-ends the car in front of him.
There are thousands of dollars in damage, but since it's your employee’s personal vehicle, you're in the clear, right? Wrong. You could be liable for the accident. And if it turns out your employee didn't have a valid driver’s license or insurance, now your business could have a much larger problem on its hands.
That's just one of the many potential risks that Pete VanDyne, commercial auto safety consultant at Liberty Mutual Insurance, says exist for businesses.
Know the risks.
Even if you don't own the cars your employees use, you could be held liable for accidents that happen while they're driving for your business. While an employee’s daily commute isn’t officially business-related, there are exceptions.
“If an employee normally reports to one office, and you ask him to change locations because you have a meeting or you're short-staffed,” VanDyne says, “that becomes business travel.” When it comes to a company-owned vehicle, virtually any accident involving that car becomes your responsibility.
If you don't have a clear and comprehensive safe-driving program, one bad accident could be financially devastating to your small business.
What goes into a safe-driving program?
A good safe-driving policy makes it clear to you and your employees that there are standards surrounding all work-related transportation. And this policy should apply to all vehicles used for company business — including personal vehicles. It’s important to share your policy with new employees (including contractors and interns) and require all employees—even those with infrequent driving responsibilities —to periodically review it.
Your independent insurance agent and insurer can help identify your specific business exposures so that your policy addresses key areas. Notes VanDyne, “We offer a vehicle safety self-evaluation checklist to policyholders that outlines critical elements of a safety program and helps businesses understand how they are doing.”
The policy should cover:
Vetting drivers. As an employer, you should have minimum driving standards before you let employees get behind the wheel. “Just because someone drives to work every day doesn't necessarily mean he or she has a license or a good driving record,” VanDyne says.
To get an idea of a job candidate’s or current employee’s driving experience, get permission to obtain the person’s motor vehicle driving history to check for traffic violations, accidents, or DUI/DWI convictions. Also check licenses to confirm they are current. And if an employee is driving a personal vehicle, make sure he or she carries insurance with adequate policy limits.
Document those employees who are authorized to operate vehicles for company use. If you let employees’ family members use company vehicles, limit use to passenger vehicles and make sure individuals meet your criteria and comply with your driving policies.
Conducting regular inspections and maintenance. Employees should be responsible for daily visual checks of the tires and bodies of company cars. Require employees to immediately report and turn in vehicles for maintenance or repairs if they find problems (i.e., worn tire treads, broken lights, bodily damage, etc.).
Also require employees to comply with manufacturer recommendations in regards to oil changes and maintenance. Without clear standards, it's easy to assume that the “company will take care of it.”
Banning distracted driving. Phone usage, in addition to other distractions, should be disallowed while on the road, and this responsibility falls on the employer and employee. No employer should knowingly force their employees into contradicting policy.
“Management can create those situations by calling employees they know are driving,” VanDyne says. Texting and checking email should also be off limits when employees are behind the wheel. If something is that critical, an employee should pull over in a safe location.
Documenting everything. Right after a vehicle accident, an employee should call 911 (if not injured and able). The employee should also take extensive photos of any damage to both vehicles and the surrounding area. Something as small as skid marks captured on a phone camera could make the difference when it comes time to assess liability.
It's important to document everything even when there seems to be a “gentleman's agreement” over the damage, or when the damage is nonexistent. In one incident, VanDyne says, a driver accidentally drove onto another company's lawn. The company told the driver not to worry about it, but to comply with his company's policy, he took numerous photographs.
“Months later, the company tried to claim that the driver's company owed them thousands of dollars for the sod the driver destroyed. There was just one problem: There was no sod laid in the first place,” VanDyne says. “Because the driver took photos of what happened, his company was able to dispute the claim and save itself thousands.”
Having a good safe-driving policy is about more than just keeping your business covered from risk—it's about keeping your people safe on the roads.