Great strides have been made in the LCV industry in the past 10 years to help alleviate the possibility of having an accident.
Today, ABS brakes and ESP traction control are now standard on many of the UK’s panel vans. Manufacturers are also providing such items as airbags and crumple zones to lessen injuries.
But amid all this safety technology, one major aspect seems to have been largely ignored so far – the possibility of serious injury caused by the van’s load.
What might seem in innocuous van addition – say a laptop computer – suddenly becomes a lethal weapon in the even of an impact.
Even a mobile phone can cause harm when a vehicle comes to a sudden unexpected stop. A first aid box, too, might be there to help drivers, but leave it loose in the cab and perversely it can cause more harm than good in an accident.
Add-on extras can be problematic too.
At present, for example, there is no official crash-testing system for van racking units, although some of the major players are now doing their own research.
Evidence exists of potentially fatal mistakes such as bulkheads being fitted as aftermarket accessories and screwed in right across side airbags, thus rendering them useless.
It’s a problem that has been worrying van fleet operators for some time now as little official practical advice exists.
Now the issue has been taken up by the Freight Transport Association (FTA), which has commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out a crash research programme, prior to publishing The Best Practice Guide for Load Security in Light Commercial Vehicles early next year.
It is hoped that the Department for Transport (DfT) will adopt the booklet as its official guidance for fleet operators, for the first time shedding some much-needed light on the subject.
An FTA spokesman said: “The need for the research to be carried out has emerged as it has become apparent that the long-standing code of practice issued by the Department for Transport (DfT) on safe loading can no longer be relied upon by operators as to what is a reasonable expectation of load retention performance.
“Currently, opinion among enforcement agencies varies between a load remaining in position and not moving in relation to the vehicle in any incident, irrespective of the severity and decelerations involved and the current DfT guidance that loads should withstand forces of up to 1G, which is the current universally applied level.
"Operators are therefore in a legal limbo.”
Issues which the TRL will be examining that could affect an employer’s duty of care to its employees include:
A TRL spokesman said: “The performance of these items in normal driving conditions poses little risk.
"However in a crash, the forces experienced mean that the performance requirements of vehicle modifications and restraining systems needs to be considerably more robust – as much as 20 times greater.
"Without expertise in vehicle crash dynamics, it can be difficult to predict this performance and anticipate the risk before it is too late.”
As an example to show that things don’t always work as the man in the street would imagine, TRL testers bought a typical roof-mounted plastic pipe carrier, bolted it to a van roof and filled it with copper pipes before crashing it at 30mph.
The plastic end of the carrier simply snapped off and the pipes flew out. In a real-life crash, they could have hit and killed a pedestrian or occupants of the car in front.
The testers made a stronger end cap from aluminium and did the test again.
But instead of the problem being solved, the crash shock was transferred down the tube and into the bolts that held it to the van roof. They snapped and the whole unit hurtled forward.
Announcing the start of the research programme, FTA utilities working group member Paul Wood said: “Our goal is to make vehicles safer and stay one step ahead of the legislation.
"It is apparent that across the transport industry there is now little or no guidance as to the reasonable expectation of how loads and their associated stowage should perform in accidents.
“While the incidence of injuries caused by loads in accidents is statistically very low, the consequence of trying to resolve this particularly difficult problem without guidance is giving grave concern to people charged with providing solutions.
"Against the background of zero injury expectation, irrespective of the incident, along with the imminent corporate manslaughter legislation, it is necessary for operators and enforcement agencies to establish a reliable, reasonable and above all practical guidance on these issues.”
He said the TRL research would help establish what can be relied upon as good practice in load securing and vehicle construction.
“The results will be used to guide operators, like us, vehicle manufacturers and equipment suppliers.
“I am also sure that this guide will be welcomed by the enforcement agencies as the current uncertainty must make policing this issue very difficult indeed.”
Mr Wood added a sobering thought: “We are hearing a lot about the risk of handguns in society. But this is minimal compared to the risk of being hurt in a vehicle.”
Top tips for drivers
1. Adhere to all company policies concerning the driving of vehicles, working practices and the loading of vehicles
2. Do not overload storage systems or vehicles and follow company/supplier guideline on this point
3. Do not place unsecured objects directly behind where occupants are likely to sit
4. Place heavy objects as low as possible in the vehicle stowage area
5. Do not place unsecured objects directly in the occupant compartment of the vehicle
6. Stow tools and equipment in racking systems if provided
7. Use appropriate tie-downs, lashing and netting to secure larger loads and equipment in the rear of the vehicle
8. Check that tie-down points and lashing systems are not damaged or worn and have them fixed or replaced if they are
9. Check load restraints and lashings shortly after beginning a journey or after any heavy braking to ensure the motion of the vehicle and the settling of the load have not loosed it
10. If you have any concerns about modifications that have been made to a vehicle, these should be raised with the fleet manager
Top tips for fleet operators
1. Produce company guidelines and procedures on how to load and store equipment and tools in vehicles for safe transit
2. Carry out regular checks to ensure that drivers are aware of and are following company policies and procedures concerning loading and storing equipment
3. Ensure that vehicles are adequately specified to carry the intended load, equipment or tools
4. Provide appropriate training for drivers so that they are aware of the hazards in a crash and know how to load and store equipment
5. Provide appropriate systems for restraining loads, equipment and tools <>P 6. Fit vehicles with storage and racking systems that have been assessed for crash-worthiness
7. Carry out risk assessments of the vehicle’s equipment and cargo, vans and fleet operations in terms of their crash safety. Document the risks and counter-actions to mitigate the risks. Review and assess them on a regular basis
8. Allow time for checks to be carried out on tie-down points, lashing and netting systems to ensure they are not damaged and worn
9. Be receptive to the concerns and advice of drivers on modifications to vehicles and load security
10. Seek professional advice if you have any concerns or uncertainties over the crash safety of your vehicles
Fleet Van was invited to the TRL headquarters in Berkshire to watch two live crash tests, along with some of the major movers and shakers in the van fleet and leasing industry – and if we had any doubts as to the FTA’s concerns before, we certainly didn’t after watching these fascinating displays.
The first test involved what was probably a typical builder’s van that we see every day on the roads and don’t think twice about.
On board was a pallet of bricks, a generator, some road cones and tools, along with some DIY racking that looked OK to start with.
On the roof was a plastic tube carrier filled with copper piping and the whole load weighed 515kg, just about half the van’s official payload.
The vehicle was crashed at 30mph. The racking virtually disintegrated.
The bricks were almost all broken in half.
The whole load piled itself into the bulkhead, snapping it off and pushing it into the cab. The plastic tube carrier snapped off and its contents went flying forwards, with potentially fatal consequences.
Worse was to reveal itself when we watched a slow motion film of the crash. The load had pushed itself forward into the back of the driver’s seat.
As the driver was being restrained from going forwards by the seatbelt, it is likely that he would have suffered major injury.
In comparison, the second test seemed rather tame but was carried out to show how much safer things could be when loads are restrained properly.
This van was fitted with a racking system provided by Sortimo.
The racking was filled with various sized packages and there were some odd items such as traffic cones strapped in with proper restraining leashes. As we examined the vehicle after the crash, it had hardly altered.
The racking was slightly bent, but even the packets stayed put.
The results speak for themselves.
The problem of incorrect loading is one which has been hidden for too long and should be addressed immediately.
Van fleet operators who ignore this advice do so at their peril.
In the event of an accident on the roads, questions will be asked about the employer’s duty of care – and those who don’t have the right answers ready could be held accountable.