Heavy panel van sales are regularly breaking all records nowadays, while the market for vehicles of just over this weight has all but collapsed – and the vast majority of vans purchased are long wheelbase, high-roof variants.
What is happening, of course, is that truck operators don’t want to be bothered with tachographs, drivers’ hours and all the hassle that goes with them and are increasingly squashing their cargos into smaller vehicles which can operate, if necessary, for 24 hours a day and with no awkward rules and regulations to bind them.
That’s all well and good, but many of those vehicles have relatively small payloads – none will carry two tonnes of cargo for example – and consequently, a lot of panel vans on the UK’s roads are being overloaded and as a result, driven illegally.
It is a problem that is becoming increasingly severe and one towards which the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) is turning its beady eye. Figures suggest that in the past year, 55% of all 3.5-tonne gvw vans stopped by VOSA were found to be overweight – a staggering figure which puts the fleet industry in general to shame.
A spokesman for VOSA says: “This is something that we are concerned about.
“We have concerns, not only from the road safety aspect but also environmental concerns and the fact that it is unfair competition.
“The increased prohibition rate is a result of our increasingly targeted approach to roadside enforcement.
“This includes the use of new technology such as automatic numberplate recognition and weigh-in motion system which allow us to identify the plated and recorded weights of vehicles while in use and only stop those that are identified as overloaded.”
One of the major culprits appears to be the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Some 90% of Sprinter sales are long wheelbase, high-roof versions and they can be seen aplenty on any motorway, at any time, thrashing along loaded to the gills.
Although the blame for overloading can hardly be placed at the doors of the German manufacturer, the firm is painfully aware of its reputation and does everything in its power to make sure that when its vans hit the roads, they will be travelling within the bounds of the law.
A spokesman says: “Since restrictive regulations hit the 7.5-tonne sector, some operators have moved down the weight scale and have invested in smaller 3.5-tonne vans.
“This move has brought a few headaches. If you look at moving the other way, say from 7.5 to 12 tonnes, an operator would in some ways have it easier.
“As a manufacturer we see many ways of how to buy or procure a van. Some customers have a clear idea of the exact vehicle they are looking for.
“They have a brochure and spec sheet under their arm and fully understand the size, weight, power and payload that equals their needs.
“Others seek guidance and support from sales staff. This is an area where we help and work with the customer, supplying a vehicle fit for use.
“It’s simply not good enough to sell a customer a long wheelbase high-roof Sprinter when an extra long wheelbase, super high-roof is the correct tool for the job.
“Our dealerships have programmes in place that address the customers’ needs and can quickly identify which vehicle is best.”
The new model Sprinter now offers gross vehicle weights of up to five tonnes and the heavier models come equipped with tachographs.
Overloading is also a problem that has come to the attention of Robert Handyside, Citroën’s commercial vehicle operations manager, and one of the ways his firm is tackling it is by bucking the trend and making new vans lighter than the models they replace, thus increasing payloads.
He says: “Citroën light commercial vehicles offer among the highest payload for vehicles of their type available.
“We believe that there is no point in specifying a van unless it can carry a relevant payload.
“The new Dispatch and Relay panel vans reflect Citroën’s concern to provide optimum payload with maximum load area.
“For instance, key models in the new Relay range actually have a better payload than the models they replace.
“This is possible with advanced engineering, despite being bigger and better equipped than their predecessors, which were already among the lightest in their class.
“The unladen weight of new Relay panel van models and the new Dispatch range has been minimised through the use of high tensile steels and advanced design techniques to preserve Citroën’s high payload credentials.
“Similarly, we have worked closely with our Ready to Run partners to ensure that the specialist bodywork they supply combines low weight with high strength.
As a result, for example, the Relay Tipmaster tipper is the highest payload vehicle in its class.”
Some vans have their loadspaces increased even further by the addition of a trailer but adding a trailer will invariably put the vehicle at over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight and so by law a tachograph must be fitted.
But one manufacturer we spoke to admitted that only around 0.5% of buyers who specified towbars on their vans asked for such a device.
The dangers of overloading have also been highlighted by fleet specialist Arval.
Tony Grove, LCV product manager at Arval, says: “Although LCVs avoid the tachograph regulations with regards to working hours, there are strict penalties associated with overloading.
“If the maximum 3.5-tonne weight limit is exceeded, both the employer and the driver could be liable for prosecution and fines can reach up to £5,000.
“It is well known that the typical LCV has become heavier as product quality has improved.
“Traditionally, a 3.5-tonne LCV would have a payload of about 2,000kg but recent figures indicate that this has fallen to 1,500kg.
“Operators must take into account the kerb weight and load positioning within LCVs before loading them up to ensure the vehicle remains under the 3.5- tonne permissible weight limit.
“Many view the LCV category as one which has been overlooked.
”HGVs and 4x4 vehicles have been subject to continuous legislative changes over the last two years, whereas LCVs appear to have gone somewhat unnoticed.”
Another danger with overloading is that the more van operators flagrantly flout the law, the more likely it is that the Government will pass legislation requiring 3.5-tonne gvw vans to be fitted with tachographs, a move that would cause untold chaos and disruption to the fleet industry.
The gross weight (gvw) of a vehicle includes the vehicle itself, the driver and the cargo.
Therefore, if a 3.5-tonnne van weighs two tonnes, the maximum cargo allowable –including the driver – will be 1.5 tonnes.
The bigger and heavier the van, the smaller the amount of cargo it can carry.
Research by Fleet News suggests that most long wheelbase, high-roof panel vans with a gvw of 3.5 tonnes have payloads between 1,110kg and 1,710kg, depending on the model.
However, we have found one instance where a Luton-bodied 3.5-tonner had a maximum payload of just over 500kg, owing to the huge weight of the body.
One of the problems is that as vans get more and more complicated, they tend to get heavier.
ABS brakes, traction control, air-conditioning units, sat-nav systems and CD players all weigh a certain amount and those weights encroach on the van’s payload.
Another point to bear in mind is that trailers have to be included in the vehicle’s gross weight – a two-tonne trailer towed by a 3.5-tonne gvw vehicle makes a 5.5-tonne gvw vehicle.
In this case, a tachograph must legally be fitted, but rarely is.
If you see a long wheelbase, high-roof van on the roads towing a large trailer, the chances are that it is operating illegally.