By Mary Jane Smetanka
As a storm rages, a driver slips behind the wheel of the same snowplow he drove the day before, oblivious to oil pooling on the ground under the engine.
In a nearby town, the plow driver has called in sick. Another employee who has never driven that rig takes over.
Seemingly little things like these can pose significant risk for Minnesota cities, says Joel Muller, League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) loss control field service manager. Wisely managing a city’s vehicle fleet, be it one pickup or hundreds of pieces of equipment, should be a priority for cities big and small.
Because if things go wrong, the financial consequences and damage to a city’s reputation can be enormous.
“If you have an accident, there is more involved than damage to a vehicle,” Muller says. “There may be property damage and personal injury, which adds up to a big incident.” Some 40% of workplace fatalities involve vehicles, according to the National Safety Council, and injuries can result in workers’ compensation claims.
New toolkit coming soon
This spring, LMCIT is releasing a new toolkit of resources on fleet management.
It provides sample policies and procedures, forms, and guidelines, and it covers best practices for:
- Selecting, hiring, and training of employees.
- Maintaining vehicles.
- Using personal vehicles for city business.
- Ensuring employee and public safety.
- Complying with state and federal laws.
Muller says the toolkit is intended to be a guide that cities can consult and pull from to develop their own policies.
It will be distributed at LMCIT’s 2020 Safety & Loss Control Workshops this spring and available to any member who requests a copy.
The goal is to help cities be efficient but, most importantly, to keep employees and the public safe.
“We include anything fleet-related, including driver selection and hiring, screening of employees, expectations for the job, and training for these drivers,” Muller says. “If there’s an accident, is there a review board to determine if it could have been prevented or if that driver can be retrained?”
The LMCIT fleet management toolkit comes as laws change for drivers of large city vehicles like snowplows. New requirements for drug testing have just taken effect, and training for commercial driver’s licenses now have to follow federal regulations. States will no longer be able to set their own criteria, and on-the job training will be permitted only on a limited basis.
“Cities need to start planning ahead,” Muller says.
He is especially concerned about practices in smaller cities, where a handful of people work with the same vehicles day after day and it’s easy to let vigilance about record keeping on fleet use and operator training slip.
Insurance and licensing issues
Cities also should make sure anyone who is using a personal vehicle for city business is insured. It’s common for small-town city clerks to drive to the post office every day in their own car to pick up and drop off mail. City employees may carpool to meetings using personal vehicles.
In these types of situations, if the city employee is negligent, it can expose the city to civil liability and considerable costs beyond the personal insurance covering the employee’s auto. LMCIT provides coverage in excess to that of the employee’s to further protect the employee and the city from these exposures.
Muller says cities should never assume that employees who were licensed and had clean records when they were hired to operate city vehicles are still in good standing years later. He recommends regularly rechecking drivers’ records.
“The bottom line is that you have a vehicle that can injure people,” he says. “Think of the damage to the city’s reputation if someone gets in a car without a valid driver’s license and someone is severely injured.”
In Dallas, a police officer was fired after he was discovered driving city-owned vehicles without a valid license. In Indiana, a mayor had three accidents while driving city vehicles.
“We want to give cities information that ensures they never end up in the news,” Muller says.
He thinks most cities do a good job of maintaining their vehicles, perhaps because the cost of neglect and replacement is so high. But he says it’s important to do more than regular oil changes. Vehicles should be inspected every time they’re used.
He recommends daily walk-around inspections.
“People just get in a truck they use every day and drive off; do they even know if the lights are working?” he asks. “It gets overlooked because it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
In Elk River, which has about 160 vehicles in its fleet, Public Works Director Justin Femrite says those kinds of checks are routine in his city. It’s the responsibility of the employee who is using the equipment that day to do a walk-around before leaving city property, looking for damage or signs of possible mechanical trouble.
To emphasize the importance the city puts on daily inspections, he says managers may sometimes put a little oil on the floor under a vehicle to be sure operators are conducting the checks.
The city keeps detailed computer records on each piece of equipment, tracking maintenance, repairs, and performance.
Scheduling software sends an alert when a vehicle needs something like an oil change, and that work is logged into a database.
System for replacing vehicles
Each vehicle gets an annual rating, taking into account maintenance costs, age, mileage or hours of use, and how important the equipment is to the city, Femrite explains. That means that replacing an older spray rig used on ice rinks won’t have the same priority as replacing an old police car.
Twice a year, a city committee looks at the equipment ratings to determine what should be replaced. The committee consists of mechanics as well as representatives from city departments, including police, fire, and public works, so the group is able to determine top needs for the entire city.
“If departments made decisions independently, everyone of course would want better equipment,” Femrite says. “Over the last five or six years, we’ve honed in and become quite analytical. It helps justify needs to the mayor and Council: here’s the vehicles we need, here’s why we need them, and here’s why we need them now.”
Using more than age or mileage has saved Elk River money, he says. The city still has a 2006 SUV that years ago topped the replacement list based on age, but it had only 18,000 miles on it.
“It’s still not costing us a lot, so why not keep it?” Femrite says. “I think that approach is where our savings are. We don’t replace just because of age. We have good efficiencies now.”
Managing a smaller fleet
The city fleet is smaller in New Prague. Public Works Director Glen Sticha says the city has five plow trucks, two pay loaders, 12 pickups, and a “jet-vac” truck for cleaning sewer lines. The city manages the fleet with an all-paper system, which Sticha says makes sense for his staff. All seven public works employees are both mechanics and drivers, but not all are comfortable with computers.
New Prague keeps files on each piece of equipment, tracking oil and tire changes and general maintenance, with separate forms for big-ticket items and repairs. “Everyone is very acquainted with the system and pretty good at documenting,” Sticha says.
Reviewing equipment and driving records
Sticha says daily walk-throughs checking oil levels, lights, and things like hoses on bigger equipment are required. “A truck has to be 100% before it can leave.”
The city reviews how much is being spent on each piece of equipment each year, and if a vehicle is bleeding money, it is sold before the customary replacement time, which is 10 years for pickups and 15 years for plows and pay loaders, says Matt Rynda, public works streets supervisor for New Prague.
The city gets the best trade-in value if it sells those vehicles then. But good maintenance, done almost exclusively by the public works staff, has extended equipment life.
New Prague checks its driver’s license and DWI records for public works staff every year. Drivers also have to pass an annual test to prove they are qualified to run equipment.
It matters even with experienced staff, Sticha says. If someone hasn’t operated a vehicle for a while, they may need a refresher course.
Fleet management of the future
What is the future of fleet management? Technology may be bringing changes.
Telematics, which combines GPS tracking of vehicles with in-vehicle performance monitoring, is already being used by cities for things like designing efficient snowplowing routes and dispatch. Telematics can track information such as how much time a vehicle is being used. It can also provide information on the driver’s performance, for example, if they are speeding or braking too hard.
While some have criticized telematics for its “Big Brother” aspects, the technology can save money, Muller says. For example, “if lots of vehicles are idle, does a city really need that many? That can affect insurance costs as well,” he says.
The technology can protect cities, too. In cases where someone has claimed property damage from something like a plow hitting a car or mailbox, telematics records can be used to show plows were elsewhere when the damage occurred. The cost of a telematics system has dropped so much that such a system might benefit even a city with as few as 15 vehicles, he says.
Behavior is biggest factor
Still, Muller says, most fleet management is about people and their behavior. One of the biggest loss leaders for cities is operators backing into parked cars or fixed objects like light poles. There are many moving parts to fleet management, Muller says. “But if cities stay on top of it, it’s a very manageable area. We hope our new toolkit will give cities the resources they need to do that.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.