Service vehicles certainly are a means of getting from one account to another. But they’re also one of your biggest capital assets, one of your greatest risks to employee safety, and one of the very first impressions you make on customers.

“Every vehicle is an advertisement” that can influence a potential client, reminded Clark Pest Control Vice President Terry Clark, who manages a fleet of 950 cars and trucks for the Lodi, Calif., company. If a vehicle shows wear and tear, “I don’t want it on the road,” he said.

The condition of the fleet impacts employees, as well. If it consists of “old beaters that aren’t maintained and aren’t safe, what message does that send to your employees?” asked Brett Mackillop, regional vice president of Abell Pest Control, which operates more than 400 service vehicles across Canada, Michigan and Ohio.

Driving in cities and for long distances poses “a potential risk to our employees” and it’s important to mitigate this risk, said Mackillop.

In fact, transportation accidents remain the greatest single cause of fatal workplace injuries. In 2015, roadway incidents accounted for 1,264 fatal work injuries, up 9 percent from the year prior, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We want all of our colleagues to get home safely each night,” said Steven Tsambalieros, president of Rentokil Steritech Canada, which has more than 300 service vehicles on the road.

TRAINING & ACCOUNTABILITY. Rentokil Steritech does this by placing a heavy emphasis on reducing and eliminating driver distractions. “In addition to provincial laws and Rentokil Steritech’s policy that prohibit cell phone use and texting while driving, we also provide driver education upon hire and refresher training and learning throughout a colleague’s tenure,” Tsambalieros said in an email to PCT. The company also asks employees to avoid drinking coffee or adjusting the radio while operating service vehicles. Training covers proper tire inflation to winter weather driving to the increased risks around time changes.

Many companies have managers inspect vehicles monthly and drivers ultimately are responsible for their vehicles meeting company standards. Checklists range from ensuring locks are functioning (important since vehicles carry professional products and equipment) to making sure tires are in good shape, lights work and that vehicles are clean.

Employees of Gregory Pest Solutions in Greenville, S.C., have an extra incentive to care for their vehicles: “Ultimately it’s going to be their vehicle when we do decide to retire it,” said Fleet Manager Jason Mack, explaining how the company gives retired vehicles to drivers who have five-plus years of tenure.

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Clark Pest Control inspects and rates its fleet twice yearly and awards best-in-fleet honors to employees and to a branch. The branch with the lowest fleet score pays a larger share of insurance, holding managers accountable and providing extra motivation for proper fleet maintenance.

TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENTS. Using telematics (or GPS vehicle tracking) to help manage the fleet is one the biggest advancements in this space, said Ken Gong, who manages more than 500 service vehicles for Orkin Canada. “We have GPS in the vehicles, which allows us to promptly correct driving behaviors, reduce speeding, idling, accidents and improve fuel usage,” he wrote in an email.

Likewise, Abell Pest Control vehicles are tied to GPS-based fleet management software that “provides a whole gamut of metrics,” analyzing hard stops, excessive speed, mileage, location and engine data that flag maintenance issues, said Mackillop. Customer service representatives know exactly where everybody is so routes can be adjusted if a customer calls in. “It’s great for customer service; it’s great for our employees. People aren’t traveling excessive distances and from a fleet management standpoint, it’s a very helpful tool,” he said.

While “it’s not intended to be a big brother situation,” the technology does help encourage safer driving and “absolutely” helps with reducing auto insurance, Mackillop said.

Video recorders that capture footage inside and outside the cab helped Clark Pest Control “cut our accident rate in half” the first year they were installed, and maintenance bills decreased as well, said Clark.

Data generated by onboard systems helps protect employees in the event of an accident, providing details of what was happening at the time of an incident, said Tsambalieros. The technology also has backed up technicians’ claims of servicing accounts despite customers complaining otherwise, said fleet managers.

As technology evolves, so will pest management professionals’ ability to manage risk and optimize routes. Advancements in technology will help PMPs save money by identifying patterns in order to predict, not just track, metrics like fuel use. Vehicles, themselves, are becoming more advanced with features like self-parking, 360-degree cameras and braking assist. At some point, autonomous vehicles may come into play. Telematics firms are preparing for this future by developing highly detailed mapping technology.

Even standard pest management equipment is getting safer and more advanced. Clark worked with a fire truck manufacturer for 12 years to develop ergonomic, electric-powered hose reels and spray rigs with impact-resistant polyethylene tanks. “Anything we can do to add safety is good not only for the driver — it’s also good for the industry,” he said.

OPERATION & MAINTENANCE. Don Topar, who oversees a fleet of nearly 1,200 cars and trucks for Truly Nolen in Tucson, Ariz., offered this advice, “Manage the fleet or it will manage you.” As such, he suggests firms perform routine maintenance and fix small issues before they become bigger problems. Having to take vehicles off the road when you don’t expect it is a huge inconvenience to the company and its customers, he reminded.

“The less time a vehicle is off the road for repairs, the more productive our people can be,” pointed out Tsambalieros. A well-maintained vehicle is not only safer, it’s greener as it uses less fuel and has fewer emissions, he added.

Truly Nolen uses a fleet management company to track fuel use, mileage and maintenance for each vehicle, as well as process registrations, generate reports, provide roadside support and negotiate repair shop invoicing. Branch managers “don’t have time for all that record keeping; their job is to service the customers,” explained Topar, who early in his career worked as a Truly Nolen mechanic before the company began using the fleet services vendor.

Mack, who oversees the 200-vehicle fleet for Gregory Pest Solutions, tried working with a fleet management company about a year ago but found it didn’t save him money so he went back to managing the process himself. He encourages his seven district managers to develop relationships with local repair shops with the caveat of not paying diagnostic services and seeking out reasonable labor rates. Any repairs over $500 need his approval. “Right now what I feel we’re doing is practical for our needs” but that may change as the fleet grows, he said.

Staff mechanics maintain vehicles at Clark Pest Control’s 12 largest branches, performing oil and tire changes and brake jobs. A dedicated team equips new vehicles with spray rigs, camper shells, printer wiring, decals and video recorders to the company’s exacting specifications.

Managing fleet costs is a huge challenge. “It can easily get out of control if you don’t manage it closely; make sure that you’re getting the return on investment” however you choose to approach it, advised Mack.

That said, “given that the safety of our colleagues is our top priority, this is a non-negotiable cost where we refuse to take shortcuts,” Tsambalieros said.

VEHICLE PROCUREMENT. The most common service vehicles are small to midsize pick-up trucks, then compact sedans. Some companies lease service vehicles; others purchase them outright. Truly Nolen does both: After a vehicle’s five-year lease expires, Topar may opt to purchase a vehicle (depending on its condition) and drive it longer.

Orkin Canada retires vehicles after three to six years of use depending on mileage and wear-and-tear. Rentokil Steritech’s cycling policy is a minimum of six years or 250,000 kilometers (about 155,000 miles). Abell leases vehicles for four years, so every year one-quarter of the fleet turns over.

But finding the right fleet vehicle can be difficult. The needs of an employee working in a rural market are totally different from someone working downtown, said Mackillop. When you’re working in large city centers where parking, traffic and building access are issues “a full-size pickup truck doesn’t work anymore; even a midsize pickup truck is a challenge. Unfortunately, the perfect vehicle is not out there yet for our purposes in a metropolitan area,” said Mackillop, who down the road might explore the “interesting idea” of walking routes in densely populated areas.

To minimize its impact on the environment, Steritech Rentokil chooses light-duty vehicles that are economically efficient and hardy. But over time, vehicles can become less efficient; by retiring them after six years, “we decrease the chances that our vehicles will become less environmentally friendly,” said Tsambalieros. Because these vehicles are well cared for, “our resale value remains on the higher end, allowing us to recoup some of the costs we put into the vehicles through maintenance,” he said.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine.