Car rental firm Avis says that Britain's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are largely unaware of recent regulations affecting staff when travelling on business and, with corporate manslaughter legislation included in this week's Queen's Speech, could put themselves at risk of prosecution if they fail to incorporate new rules into their everyday working practices.

There was just a hint of self-interest in the Avis warning, the company pointing out that car rental can be one solution to the potential problem.

Avis believes that SMEs have not taken on board the Health & Safety Executive (HSE)'s Driving at Work guidelines, the implications of which are set to become much more serious with the announcement this week of a Corporate Manslaughter Bill. Many businesses are also unaware of the options open to them to minimise their exposure.

The HSE guidelines extend the definition of 'the workplace' to cars that the employee uses when driving on business, making the employer responsible for ensuring the health and safety of employees if five or more of them use their own car. Around 5,000,000 people currently use their own cars on business in the UK.

Guidelines such as the HSE's are now becoming a legal requirement. If employees use their own vehicles on business, the employer will have to be satisfied that the vehicle is road safe. If an employee was involved in a serious road accident whilst on company business, and the employer had not shown sufficient duty of care in ensuring that the vehicle was safe, the employer could be liable.

UK government estimates show there are 20 road deaths a week involving people at work.

Avis also pointed out that businesses need to look at bringing in procedures to ensure that employees' cars are roadworthy, or to consider alternative company transport policies so that employees do not use their own cars other than to get to and from work.

There are a number of alternatives for those not wanting to take on additional responsibilities, Avis helpfully suggests.

The first is car rental. If the employer rents cars for employee use, the responsibility for ensuring that the vehicle is fit for purpose will rest solely with the rental company. Employers then need not concern themselves with the day-to-day detail of the new regulations and the cost and trouble of compliance.

Avis also says it has developed rental packages for SMEs.
 
Avis adds, however, that another option is a growing phenomenon, car clubs. Here businesses pay an annual fee, and then have use of a car for short occasional trips, such as popping to the bank or post office. Car clubs such as Urbigo have an increasing number of members, and the cost works out cheaper than a taxi. Responsibility for safety under the new legislation in this case will rest with the car club.