Jon York, fleet operations manager at British Gas, says he was “public enemy number one” when he introduced speed limiters to his commercial van fleet.
Why was the decision so controversial? Well, British Gas vans are all below 3.5 tonnes, so speed limiters are not a legal requirement.
And more importantly, drivers resisted the new policy because they felt a speed limiter would affect their van’s performance.
“A lot of drivers thought we’d restricted the engine speed,” Jon explains.
“And complaints were coming in that it would be dangerous for them to drive as they wouldn’t be able to get up to top speed.”
In fact, the engine speed was not restricted – only the road speed.
“You can get from 0 to 70mph as if you’re driving any other vehicle that’s not restricted. And at the end of the day, 70mph is the legal speed limit.”
Protecting the company image was one reason British Gas gave for the measure.
“We’ve got a high-profile brand and for that reason our guys shouldn’t be seen to be speeding,” Jon says.
He recalls how on a typical journey on the M1 to London from his home in Leeds, he used to see “swarms” of blue British Gas vans being driven by young apprentices, heading for the training academy in Leeds.
And he said nearly all of them were in the outside lane, tailgating.
British Gas has about 1,800 engineers in the high-risk 17 to 25 age bracket and reducing the risk of them – or any of the company’s other engineers – being involved in a collision was a priority.
“A high proportion of fatal incidents occur through high speed,” Jon says.
“We’ve not had a fatality that I’m aware of in the time
that I’ve been at British Gas but it’s the probability of it happening.”
In fact, Jon points out that driving on company business is the second most dangerous occupation (after deep sea diving).
Since introducing speed limiters three years ago, British Gas has seen a reduction in incidents.
In the first year, they fell by 8% and over the past two years have fallen by 14%.
This is not entirely due to speed limiters, though.
British Gas introduced a road safety policy at the same time and Jon says it is important for driver training to go alongside speed limitation.
His latest message to drivers is ‘20 is plenty’ when driving in residential areas because speed limiters do not prevent speeding in 30mph and 40mph zones.
The company’s driver training programme has also helped to overcome the resistance Jon initially faced.
“Driver behaviour has to change for it all to work,” he says.
“And the attitudes of our drivers have changed over the last three years.
"You’ll always get a minority against it, but the majority have accepted it.”
Jon believes it is important to get ‘buy-in’ and respect when introducing initiatives.
British Gas holds a fleet focus group every quarter for that reason.
“We sit down with engineers and discuss what we’re doing from design to specification.
"It’s important that we’re not introducing things that engineers aren’t aware of.”
By the end of next year, the entire fleet (9,500 car-derived and panel vans) will have speed limiters fitted and Jon isn’t expecting any more angry phone calls.
There were no complaints this year when 800 new vehicles had speed limiters fitted – bringing the total fitted so far to about 60% of the fleet.
British Gas fits speed limiters to its vans before they are out on the road and Jon says it is simply a case of reprogramming the van’s electronic control unit (ECU).
Many of the big-name manufacturers offer speed limitation.
For instance, Citroën offers a factory-fit speed limiter on the Relay for £70.
Volkswagen will factory-fit speed limiters to any of its Crafters for about £40, while fitting one to a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is £45.
Ford will factory-fit at £40 plus VAT.
The ECU can also be altered at a dealership, usually for a half-hour labour charge.
Where it’s not possible to reprogramme the ECU, companies like Autokontrol – which owns Romatic, one of the original manufacturers of speed limiters – will fit a small black box, known as a drive-by-wire limiter.
This works by interrupting the electric signals from the throttle pedal to the ECU.
Gerry Leggat, product manager at Autokontrol, said prices vary depending on the model and the quantity of vehicles being fitted.
It could cost £400 for a one-off.
However, the expense can be recouped through fuel consumption and maintenance savings.
Autokontrol says a major fleet operator can expect to save 5% to 25% in fuel.
Jon has yet to see a reduction in his fuel bill, but there is a straightforward explanation: “All of our new vehicles have got air conditioning and we’ve found that fuel consumption increases by 9% with the air con on,” he says.
He remains convinced that speed limiters make financial sense.
“There are lots of hidden costs when your driver is involved in an incident,” he says.
“You’ve got to take into account the loss of productivity, cost of hire vehicles and time investigating incidents.
"You’ve also got to bear in mind that you might lose a customer if an engineer is involved in an incident and doesn’t turn up to an appointment.”
There is also the environmental argument to fitting speed limiters.
“Speed limiters are growing in popularity because operators today are looking at the carbon footprint of their fleet,” Gerry at Autokontrol says.
“They want to do something to reduce it.”
Royal Mail, with a fleet of 24,500 vehicles below 3.5 tonnes, has decided to introduce speed limitation.
This year, about 4,000 new car-derived vans will come with speed limiters and another 9,000 will begin a phased retro-fitting scheme, via the business’s internal garage network.
Chris Fisher, fleet planning and operation manager, says: “Speed limitation supports our environmental goals to reduce fuel consumption and improve our carbon footprint.”
Royal Mail’s other reasons are much the same as those of British Gas, with safety and duty of care high on the list, followed by savings benefits.
“We believe that speed limitation and driver training are two of the many enablers to deliver duty of care,” Chris adds.
“We are currently undertaking online driver risk assessments of all the people who drive for Royal Mail to identify areas of training or development that would reduce risk.”
And like British Gas, Royal Mail has chosen to set the speed limiters to 70mph as many of the routes involve motorway driving.
Jon York says he would not consider limiting his vans to 60mph.
“It could compromise the safety of our engineers,” he says.
“You can be tootling along at 60mph on the motorway and then if you want to pull out and everyone else is doing 80mph you can feel vulnerable.”
There’s also the problem of overtaking an HGV, which is legally restricted to 56mph, if a van driver only has 4mph extra to pass him.
Royal Mail plans to fit a sticker on the rear of the vehicles, showing the speed limitation.
This is something British Gas has already done in response to feedback from its drivers.
“Other drivers thought they were being bloody-minded, sticking to 70mph, and were tailgating them,” Jon says.
“So we put a sign on the back of the van so people know it’s restricted.
"Hopefully, they now leave a safe gap.”
What about the apprentices?
“I now see them in the first and second lanes, scattered about, and keeping the correct separation distance,” Jon says.
“As a fleet manager, that’s pleasing to see.”
Not prepared to consider speed limiters, but still want to reduce fuel consumption?
It might be worth looking at a stop-start system.
Mercedes-Benz has launched an ECO-Start system on its Sprinter vans which claims to boost fuel economy by around 6%.
Whenever the vehicle is stationary for more than two seconds the system stops the engine.
It automatically starts again when the driver depresses the clutch pedal.
Operators in busy city centres could make significant fuel savings, as well as reducing harmful exhaust emissions.
The ECO-start system, plus the necessary uprated battery and alternator, costs £545.