Fleet News

Soapbox: time to stop this safety scandal

ONCE again, van drivers find themselves the poor relation of fleet. Fleet Van editor Trevor Gelken reckons it's time things changed for the better.

'You've got to feel sorry for poor old white van man. I know he's rude, I know he cuts you up on the motorway and I know he is likely to flick his fag-ends out of the window, cascading a shower of sparks all over your bonnet.

But look at it from white van man's point of view.

He is likely to be underpaid, he probably spends more hours than he should behind the wheel thanks to a tyrannical fleet manager (no tachographs in white van land) and then to cap it all, he is probably being denied the basic safety measures that you and I take for granted at work.

It's true that manufacturers are working hard at making the van cab a more comfortable place in which to work. Most vans have coin, coffee cup and mobile phone holders (gasp), most have a space for a two-litre cola bottle (amazing) and all the major manufacturers offer superb drivers' seats that adjust all ways, so that white van man won't be able to skive off work with the excuse that he's got a bad back. But when it comes to driver safety, a sad and sorry story unfolds.

With the exception of the Ford Transit and Mazda E Series, all the mainstream large panel vans offered for sale in Britain today have a driver's airbag as a paid-for option. Try buying a car today without a driver's airbag and you'd be hard-pressed to find one. Even the Perodua Kelisa 1.0 EX at £5,425 has a driver and passenger bag as standard.

So why do van manufacturers continue to launch new models and ask buyers to pay extra for things which have become standard fittings in cars? After all, vans are specifically built to be driven on the roads hour after hour, day in day out, so shouldn't they be in the forefront of vehicle safety rather than dragging their heels behind like some third world cousin?

Exactly who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs?

On every new van press launch I attend, my hand goes up at question and answer time and I ask the same question: 'Why are you charging extra for a driver's airbag?'

Invariably, the answer is: 'There is no call for it, apart from in the retail sector'.

Presumably in the retail sector, the person who buys the van actually drives it, so that only leaves me with one conclusion... the majority of Britain's van fleet operators care so little about their drivers' safety that they are not even prepared to cough up a couple of hundred quid to protect their valuable employees.

Not only is this a national scandal, but those operators may be financially misguided too. There is growing evidence from disposal experts that vans with low specifications are not selling well at auction – as with cars, secondhand buyers are now expecting more than in the old days.

So 'saving' £250 at buying time may well cost the fleet £500 or more at auction – a sobering thought.

There is also a renewed focus on health and safety in the fleet industry at the moment. Soon, the car or van may well be classed as a place of work by the Health and Safety Executive, so van drivers will, by law, be given the same rights and protection as office and factory workers. So then, when a driver is crippled in an accident and the compensation courts discover that the employer could have opted for an airbag but decided not to for cost-saving reasons, where will that leave the employer? Up to his neck in the bouillabaise, that's where.

My plea to van manufacturers on behalf of white van man is to correct this anomaly now and make drivers' airbags standard on all models. In the meantime, my advice to fleet buyers is this: face up to your responsibilities to your employees and pay the little extra it costs to give them the safety measures they deserve. It's not much to ask, surely?'

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