Fleet News

Soapbox: Kill the white van man myth

THE consumerism of the 1980s spawned many labels for different parts of society, YUPPIES, NIMBYS and of course White Van Man.

While my kids probably wouldn’t know what a YUPPIE was, White Van Man is a label that has stuck. There is much debate on whether White Van Man actually exists.

Realistically, the existence or not of a defined group of people fitting this stereotype is less important. The fact is that people see white vans being driven aggressively, even if statistically there is little evidence that this behaviour results in more white van accidents.

Most people feel comfortable with a label but as time has gone on White Van Man has come to symbolise an aggressive driver, who eats fast food in a battered, dirty white van.

This can’t go on. The heavy truck industry in Britain has dispelled the myths of the ‘Not-The-Nine-O’clock-News hedgehog-bashers’. British van drivers and their employers must do the same to expunge either the myth or the facts surrounding White Van Man and make us proud of the vast numbers of dedicated people who deliver the bread, bricks and balls that have built Britain.

The time is right to do this. You need proof? There are more vans on the road than ever before. Vans represent the heart of our workforce and, importantly the heart of our community. They carry our food, tools and our children. They attend our accidents, our riots and provide the means to take all our junk to the local rubbish recycling plants.

White used to be the most popular colour for a van. Nowadays, owner operators in particular, want anything as long as it’s not white. A metallic finish represents who they are and their level of professionalism and that ain’t anything to do with poor driving habits, poor eating habits and a van in a state of disrepair – aka White Van Man.

Cost: that dirty yet popular word that creates the pressures on drivers and that pressure is increasing in today’s climate of instant access to the world and its goods. We’ve all seen that delivery van pressed up against our rear bumper trying to beat the clock and gain an extra metre. In fairness it is not just a small group of white van drivers that have a need or desire to drive this way – indeed many car drivers also feel the need, possibly as a result of the same or other pressures. This creates a feeling that the driver is anti-social, overly-aggressive and employers must put a stop to it.

I see three parts to commercial vehicle safety – the first being vans and buses that are designed and equipped with as many safety features as possible (and we’ve done our bit on that score), secondly they need to be operated safely (loading, delivery plans, schedules and daily workload etc) and thirdly – enter White Van Man – they need to be driven safely and responsibly. As Britain’s leading and best-selling van manufacturer we are prepared to play a part. We’ve seen the increase in standardisation of anti-lock brakes and airbags and that’s good.

Also, the emergence of the law to enforce the use of speed limiters for all vehicles over 3500 kg and the EU Working Time Directive will play a part in making employers think about realistic delivery plans for drivers may ease some of the pressures but manufacturers working with organisations like the FTA can do more to raise the profile of good drivers in good vans.

There is no single solution but manufacturers could follow our example of working with the FTA and other key organisations with an aim of creating driver-training programmes that are accessible and affordable and that goes beyond the large fleet customers. We will also be talking to our fleet operators to find ways of working together to improve driving standards as part of their operating cost pressures.

Unfortunately in the competitive age we live in you can tell someone their partner is ugly rather than tell them their driving is terrible. Our biggest issue is that the good drivers ‘know they are good’ and the poor drivers ‘think they are great’. Being a great driver seems to be associated with fast, aggressive no prisoner-taking style and less to do with smooth, considerate progress.

We must show them that they can do better, they can be more efficient and less stressed and also show operators that the vehicles will use less fuel, have fewer dents and last longer, having better residuals when disposed time comes.

We are currently in our research phase of this, trying to find the best way of tackling this part of the problem. We may all think this isn’t relevant to us but it is the monster we, as an industry, have created. White Van Man climbs into all types of vans and minibuses. Do you want your kids in a vehicle with a driver with ‘White Van Man fever’ who thinks, yeah, this bus can really shift, no need to worry about anyone else or how much fuel costs? For every minibus sold to schools for example, Ford offers free driver training for two people. Point made.

Indeed, schools may be a good place to start in this plight to obliterate White Van Man. The FTA launched the Smart Moves campaign to address the imbalance in perceptions of the motor industry as a whole.

The UK freight transport and logistics industry currently employs in the region of 1.6 million people; four times the number employed in agriculture and six times the number employed in motor vehicle manufacturing. However, it is estimated that there is currently a shortage of around 45,000 drivers in the UK. This figure is expected to grow by 17% by 2010 as European legislation governing working time and drivers’ hours will further increase the demand for staff, particularly drivers and fitters.

The FTA has called for employers to make closer links with local schools. I am proud to say that Ford has ongoing educational programmes and we encourage every child who wants to know more about how we make vans.

In this transient world, explaining to kids that vans, freight and logistics will always be needed helps to put things in perspective and opens their minds to the opportunities in this industry. If every van manufacturer engaged with one child every month, we’d make progress – so how about it? It’s not a competition to see who can spend the most but a genuine effort to improve the awareness of our business.

While we perpetuate the White Van Man myth, Britain will believe he still exists. While someone in a van still tailgates us, the myth continues. No longer is the van market just merely an extension of the car market – it is a very real and important sector in its own right.

With that comes the same levels of responsibility that the heavy truck sectors have lived with for years. I say let’s start shouting about vans being operated properly and spreading the professional image that van drivers deserve.
  • Does something in the LCV fleet industry get YOU hot under the collar? E-mail trevor.gelken@emap.com and take your turn on the Fleet Van soapbox
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