Have you ever considered what is at stake when allowing an employee to drive a company vehicle? First, it is the entrustment of company equipment. Equipment costs money. Some of it costs a lot of money. The sales arborist’s car, a chip truck towing a chipper, a grapple-saw truck – these are significant company investments purchased to generate revenue.
When equipment is down for repair, it can’t generate revenue. Consider how long it takes to get a new unit today if you have one that can’t be repaired. How much has the price increased since your last purchase? How much have interest rates increased since your last purchase? Will efficiency or safety be impacted by doing the work without a particular piece of equipment?
The second thing you entrust to every employee who operates a vehicle is your insurance limits. Insurance is expensive, and auto-insurance rates have risen steadily for years. Most insurance companies are losing money on commercial auto insurance, so the trend of companies raising auto-insurance rates is going to continue. The factors driving rising auto-insurance rates are outside the business owner’s control. Financial awards in court cases have continued to grow. The cost to repair vehicles continues to rise. The cost of new vehicles has increased. The cost of medical treatment continues to rise.
In an effort to reduce the number and severity of auto claims, many insurance companies have become more stringent in their requirements. They have instituted minimum ages for acceptable drivers. While ArborMax has held its minimum age for drivers to 19, some carriers require that employees must be at least 21 years old to drive company vehicles. Insurance carriers also are monitoring motor vehicle records (MVRs) and Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance.
The third thing you are entrusting to every employee who drives your vehicles is your company’s reputation. The company name is on the side of every vehicle. The chip truck doesn’t just tow the chipper and haul wood chips, it’s your mobile billboard. If the driver speeds through residential neighborhoods, cuts off other vehicles or flips off another driver, they are representing the tree care company. How do you protect your equipment, your insurance limits and your company image?
Hire people with desirable driving records
The most impactful action you can take to reduce motor-vehicle collisions, reduce your liability and maintain your desired public image is to hire the right people. Easy, right? There is an abundance of good-quality, potential employees out there waiting to come to work for you, right? They all have their CDL and a clean driving record. Wrong! Many tree care companies say hiring and retaining good employees is the biggest challenge they have. One of TCIA’s focuses is to provide resources to help members hire, manage and retain employees. But what does a desirable driving record look like?
- They have had few or no infractions in the past three years.
- They are 25 years old or older. At the minimum, they should have three years of licensed driving experience.
Red flags in potential new hires:
- Fewer than three years of driving experience.
- Multiple moving violations.
- Any drug- or alcohol-related infraction.
- Unpaid tickets, back child support, moving violations.
- One or more suspensions in the last three years.
It’s important to take the potential employee’s driving history seriously because your insurance carrier is going to. The current process of many tree care companies is to hire the employee and then (hopefully) notify their insurance agent. The agent passes the employee’s information on to the insurance company. The insurance company requests a motor vehicle record and determines if the employee meets its guidelines for acceptability. If the driver doesn’t meet the insurance company’s standards, they notify the insurance agent. Most states allow insurance companies to exclude drivers who do not meet their standards. Now the new employee is not eligible to drive or, if they do, they are driving a company vehicle without liability or physical-damage coverage.
A proactive approach is for employers to review the potential hire’s MVR prior to offering employment. Employers can run motor vehicle records for a few dollars each. When you have determined the applicant is a desirable hire, ask them to sign a release authorizing you to obtain a copy of their MVR. You can offer employment subject to an acceptable record or wait until you have reviewed it to offer employment.
Implement company policies and adhere to them
Company policies should outline what is appropriate behavior on the job, and should include:
- A drug and alcohol policy.
- MVR review, pre-hire and annual.
- Pre-trip inspections.
- Personal use of company vehicles.
- Distracted driving/cellphone-use policy.
- Road tests prior to operating company vehicles.
- Accident-reporting procedures.
Company policies should be signed by every employee. In the event of litigation, this will show due diligence on your part. In a courtroom, an absence of company policies or lack of evidence that employees were required to read them will be presented as negligence on the part of the employer.
Ensure vehicles are maintained, maintenance is documented
For some commercial vehicles, this is a DOT requirement. Inconsistent or poor maintenance can result in motor-vehicle collisions. Well-maintained company vehicles are also less likely to break down on the road and impact productivity.
Today, technology pervades everything, with both positive and negative effects. The smartphone is the single-largest cause of distracted-driving accidents. There are broad choices of products and services available that can help to minimize collisions.
- App on drivers’ phone that limits cellphone usage.
- Telematic modules that plug into the On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD II) port.
- Hardware attached to the vehicle that is difficult to circumvent – this can provide important data such as oil temp and pressure, RPMs, gas mileage, aggressive acceleration or cornering, speed, location, etc.
- Dashcams. These have become relatively inexpensive. Some models are forward facing and others consist of two cameras that record in front of the vehicle and the driver. They can be a definitive witness to the events involved in a motor-vehicle incident.
Report claims to the insurance company
There is a belief that it is better to pay for small claims “out of pocket” rather than reporting them to the insurance company, because reporting claims will result in a rate increase. This is not a bad approach in simple cases that have little potential to grow into large claims. Repairing a fence because a limb was dropped on it or paying out of pocket to repair a vehicle that was dinged in a parking lot are inexpensive and clear-cut incidents that are unlikely to develop into something more. With workers’ compensation and most auto incidents, this approach can create problems.
Expenses that seemed incidental at the time often become massive, especially after the injured party has met with an attorney. If an insurance company is notified months or even years after the incident, their ability to defend the claim will be hampered. Witnesses can be difficult to locate, memories are less reliable and damaged vehicles have already been repaired. I have seen cases where the accident location had changed dramatically due to property reconstruction and landscape changes.
The commercial-auto fleet is also a fleet of mobile liability. It is increasingly common for policy-limit awards in court cases, not just for the auto policy, but also the entire umbrella as well. Proactive management of the fleet and its drivers can reduce accidents, reduce downtime, mitigate claim expenses and help to maintain the company’s professional image.
Jeffry Blackman is a program manager for the ArborMax Insurance Program, a program of Eydent Insurance Services, LLC, an 18-year TCIA member company based in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.