Transport Secretary Alistair Darling recently made public that he is investing up to £1.3 million in a new voluntary training scheme for van drivers that will teach them how to drive more safely and fuel-efficiently.
And having been involved in helping set up the scheme, along with other driver training companies and road safety experts, I have to say that it deserves to be a success.
This is from no self-interested personal or company view, let me hasten to add, but from the belief that if the scheme succeeds, it will be to the benefit of all who drive for business in urban situations or out on our motorway networks.
Let me explain. The number of vans on our roads has increased dramatically as patterns of distribution have changed in recent years, fuelled by the soaring number of home delivery items being ordered over the internet. Whole fleets of home delivery vans have sprung up around the country and van sales have never been so buoyant.
By the nature of their operating conditions, usually in crowded urban streets where they are likely to come into contact with other road users, cyclists and pedestrians, or up against the clock in a motorway dash from one distribution depot to the next, van drivers are theoretically more likely to cause or be involved in road traffic accidents than, say, company car drivers.
The Government’s thinking is that better driving techniques among this new and existing van driving community will result in fuel savings, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fewer accidents on our roads, which in turn should feed through to lower insurance premiums, lower running costs and higher resale values. A similar scheme has already been launched successfully in the HGV industry and it is hard to fault the logic of the argument.
For the van driver, the van really is a tool of the job, far more than, say, for a perk company car driver. And yet, a company employee can get behind the wheel of a large panel van, or in other words a small lorry, with no formal training whatsoever and drive this unfamiliar vehicle in some of the most demanding conditions we can experience on our roads.
Under those circumstances, far from vilifying white van man as some of the press is inclined to do, we ought to be praising the overwhelming majority of the breed who drive responsibly and well in testing circumstances. Training can only help this situation.
Where the SaFED initiative will need commitment, however, is from the employer. Take a van driver off the road, as opposed to a company car driver, and the company really could suffer economically.
However, this should not be a justification for not getting involved – real economic benefits will accrue from trained van drivers in terms of reduced accident costs, lower fuel costs and ultimately greater business continuity and efficiency. And when companies see these benefits and how the drivers themselves appreciate the training, they will hopefully be encouraged to broaden the training net to cover other users of company vehicles.
The SaFED initiative is being aimed at all businesses from large fleets to smaller business users with up to 3,500 heavily subsidised training sessions to be made available. For companies of up to 250 employees these will be free; those over 250 employees are likely to pay £50 per driver.
While final details are still being ironed out, training courses are likely to be one-day affairs, including both in the classroom and behind-the-wheel tuition and are expected to start this summer. The target of training some 3,500 van drivers is then hopefully to be achieved by the following summer.
With these environmental, economic and social benefits in mind, we should all wish the Government’s SaFED scheme every possible success.