A brief introduction to SAFED for Vans was followed by a safety overview from Steve Dethick, national training manager for DriveTech, one of the companies qualified to provide the course.
He said: ‘The key subject today is looking at reducing the risk of having an accident, then at fuel efficiency. To change a company culture is very difficult, but if drivers can feel good about their vans and their efforts, then companies can enjoy better staff retention.’
The presentation was focused on putting the issue in context. For example the chances of having an accident in a van are 145 to 1. Because vans often operate in urban environments, the danger is enhanced, because that is where many fatalities take place.
While motorways account for 3% of collisions and 4% of fatalities, urban roads account for 74% of collisions and 46% of deaths. Rural roads account for 23% of crashes, but 50% of fatalities.
It was a friendly, informal atmosphere and a great opportunity to learn things that stick in your mind, such as the speed limits for vans, which in many cases are different to those posted on signs. Where a car can do 60mph on a delimited carriageway, a van can only do 50mph. On dual carriageways, vans are limited to 60mph, not 70mph.
To put up a warning sign, Dethick explained, there must have been two injury accidents in a 12-month period.
He also covered stopping distances, stability and parking and introduced a host of phrases, such as ‘Tyres and Tarmac’ – explaining what you should be able to see when waiting behind another vehicle to ensure it doesn’t roll back and hit you. These are designed to be catchy and memorable.
Dethick then covered the basics of safe and fuel-efficient driving, such as planning ahead, braking, speed and use of gears, before we stepped into the sunshine to take to the road for the first time in the Renault Trafics provided for the day. Before we started, there was a quick eyesight test on a car numberplate on the other side of the car park. ‘I need to know the person driving me can see where he is going,’ Dethick explained.
There was then a check around the van, including under the bonnet to look at brake fluid, washer fluid and so on, followed by tyres.
‘These checks are particularly important if the van has been standing or if you are driving it for the first time, as you don’t know how long it has been there,’ he said.
On the first 30-minute route, I drove in my normal manner and was quite pleased to achieve 38.1 mpg. But Dethick pointed out some key errors, such as using engine braking approaching junctions and roundabouts.
He said: ‘If you have no brake lights, it increases the chances of the vehicle behind hitting you. Also, there is greater wear and tear on engine parts. Use the brakes and plan ahead.’
‘Vision Before Decision’ was one of several mantras he repeated, meaning the gear should only be selected when it was clear it was the right one. So rather than swapping cogs eight times coming up to a roundabout and accelerating away, it could be reduced to two or three if block gearchanging was used, where you jump from third to sixth and so on.
We also practised manoeuvring, including parking, with an invaluable tip from Dethick. He explained many people reverse park a van when they are on the opposite side of the vehicle to the parking space and they can’t see a thing.
Simply turn around and reverse park so you are sitting on the same side as the parking space. It is much easier and you can see a lot more, he explained.
During Dethick’s demonstration run, the real-world dangers on the road were brought into focus when our driving was halted because of a serious accident between two cars. It was an accident blackspot, with lots of signs, but drivers hadn’t taken the warning on board.
We returned to the classroom to discuss the morning and after a hearty meal, went back out to put our skills to the test.
It took a bit of getting used to, but his advice led to a much smoother drive and there were much fewer gearchanges, which over a year would really add up.
I returned more confident and with my head spinning with new ideas, only to face the dreaded theory test.
As luck would have it, the answers were multiple choice and pretty straight forward. I finished the paper and waited for the result.
THANKFULLY I passed with flying colours and received a certificate with a big ‘excellent’ gold star on it, which felt surprisingly good in a ‘back to school’ kind of way.
But the real difference was in the figures. Although I had managed a healthy 38.1 mpg on my first drive, this had risen to 38.4 mpg. Furthermore, my gearchanges were down by 30%. Other drivers on the course gained too. One saw economy rise from 32.3 mpg to 38.2 mpg and gearchanges drop 20% to 49 on the course.
One of the most dramatic results was a driver whose economy rose from 34.7mpg to 36.6mpg, a 5.4% increase, while gearchanges dived from 63 to 28, a 56% fall.
And despite this, journey times were unaffected; an important argument for drivers who fear that safer driving means slow driving.
It provided hard evidence that the course works and that benefits are available for both drivers and for fleet decision-makers.
And considering the course is free for most fleets that provide their own vehicles, the argument isn’t why you should take the course, but how you can afford not to.