Oldies like me remember the days when you could thrash about on a motorbike legally without wearing a crash helmet. As for drink-driving, all you had to do was manage to walk a straight line in the police station to prove you weren’t incapable of piloting a car.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that those bad old days should return. But the fact is that we had a freedom then that we now no longer enjoy. That freedom was taken away because the general motoring public proved unwilling and unable to regulate itself and behave.
I remember that the Government spent a fair bit of cash in the early 1970s on public safety advertisements urging motorcyclists to don safety helmets when taking to the roads. No-one – including yours truly I regret to say – took a blind bit of notice. So it was hardly surprising that legislation followed in 1973.
It was a similar story in the heavy truck industry. Once we saw 40-tonners thundering up and down our motorways at anything up to 70mph but now they are governed down by law to 56mph and have tachographs fitted to avoid drivers working excessive hours. Which brings me nicely round to the van market...
At present, the 3.5-tonne sector is on a roll, breaking records month after month. One reason is that more goods are being ordered via the internet and shipped to more households door-to-door. But there is another reason too – go above 3.5-tonnes and fleet operators have to contend with all the hassles and problems of running a heavy truck fleet – tachographs, time sheets et al.
This situation is all fine and dandy so long as all those extra van drivers play the game and behave themselves – but of course they don’t.
With vans getting more powerful and now adorned with all sorts of goodies such as ABS brakes and ESP traction control systems, it’s all too easy for drivers to make the most of the prodigious amounts of power available.
You want to drive a fully-loaded 3.5-tonner at 100mph, sir? No problem, we have the technology.
There is also a problem with drivers’ hours. Get behind the wheel of a 4.5-tonner and you’ll be limited to how many hours you can sit behind the wheel.
But at 3.5-tonnes, you can happily drive all day along – until you happen to fall asleep at the wheel and cause an accident which kills an innocent family. The fact of the matter is that unless White Van Man regulates himself, someone is pretty soon going to do it for him.
I believe the menace of White Van Man has been largely overstated. But there are enough bad van drivers out there to make the politicians sit up and take notice – and when politicians start tub-thumping, you never know what crazy legislation will follow.
Which brings me back to Joni Mitchell. In years to come, I believe 2005 will be looked back on as a golden age of vans, a time when carefree drivers could go as fast as they liked and for as long as they liked, worried only by the odd Gatso camera and the vague threat of prosecution under wishy-washy health and safety laws. I believe that within five years, 3.5-tonners will be governed by speed limiters and will have mandatory tachographs fitted, as their bigger brothers have at present.
The Eurocrats in Brussels are already making rumbling noises in this direction, so such laws can only be a matter of time.
So my advice to Britain’s van fleet operators is this: make the most of your present freedom. One day soon, it will be gone for good.
Trevor Gelken, Editor Fleet Van