Earlier this year the Freight Transport Association revealed plans for a Van Excellence Code aimed at light commercial vehicle operators, which is now about to launch. Whose idea was it?

Towards the start of the year we became aware that many of our members, who of course tend to run heavy trucks, were taking the operation of the vans that they also often run a lot more seriously. Vans were much more on their radars than they had been. As efficient and responsible operators they wanted to take the knowledge that they had and the best practices that they followed and cascade them throughout the industry in order to raise standards. They were concerned about the risks associated with running light commercial fleets and the environmental impact that vans have as well as the cost of running them. They also wanted recognition of the time, trouble, effort and investment they were putting into operating their van fleets. In addition they wanted to ensure that light commercial operators had a distinct voice and to improve the sector’s overall image. 


What other concerns did they have?

They were conscious that there has been a large increase in sales of big vans over the past 15 years or so [the sort of vans used on parcel delivery work] and that vehicles of this size are potentially dangerous. Vans are at the heart of what many of these companies do and are integrated into everything that the country does as well. When you think about it the one thing that would really have an impact on the UK and bring it to a standstill would be if all the vans were taken off the road for a day. Remember that home delivery has expanded enormously in recent years, and most of those deliveries are made in vans. That means that the general public is much more conscious of their presence. 


Were the FTA and your members worried that if a voluntary code of practice wasn’t introduced then the government would regulate LCVs more tightly? One step could be to lower the heavy truck Operator Licence threshold from 3.5t to 2.8t.

Although I wouldn’t want to overplay it, the prospect of tighter regulation has certainly been in our thoughts. So far as politicians are concerned imposing tougher legislation on van owners wouldn’t be a vote-loser and might generate some useful additional revenue. However, what has really propelled the code along has been fleets saying that they want to be able to do things better, they want to share their experiences and best practices, and they want recognition of their excellence as van operators.


How was the Van Excellence Code drawn up?

It had to be an industry-led scheme – created by operators for operators – so we spent a lot of time talking to light commercial fleets (some good, some bad, some indifferent) about what they were actually doing and what their wishes for such a scheme would be. The upshot of this was that we pulled together quite a powerful steering group made up of 18 operators running over 60,000 vans between them to put together a sensible, practical, pragmatic code of conduct that illustrates the minimum standard a company ought to be reaching. We ensured that the operators involved represented a cross-section of the industry, including construction and infrastructure companies, utilities, retailers, parcels firms and local authorities among others. We acted as facilitators; as I said earlier, it’s their code. 


So what does the code consist of?

Broadly speaking it’s divided into two areas; the driver, and the vehicle itself. So far as the driver is concerned it deals with everything from regular licence checking to having measures in place to ensure that drivers are fit to drive and not under the influence of drink or drugs. New recruits have to undergo an induction process, including an assessment of their driving, and there has to be a process in place to ensure that any equipment fitted to a van is operated in a safe and legal manner once a risk assessment has been carried out. Only designated drivers should be allowed to tow trailers and they must be appropriately licensed and trained. From the vehicle viewpoint, it must be appropriate for the job, fitted with suitable racking if it is carrying parts and tools and not overloaded. Existing vans should be fitted with a bulkhead wherever possible and it should be mandatory on all new vans.

What about maintenance?

One thing that is required is that drivers carry out a daily check of their vans before they depart to ensure they’re safe to use. A defect reporting scheme must be in place. Vehicles have to be regularly serviced and MoT’d whenever necessary, and code members have to make a conscious decision about the maintenance regime for their particular vehicles. A lot of the fleets we’ve talked to say that the extended service intervals promoted by some manufacturers may be too long for some types of operation, especially so far as friction materials are concerned. They may be inappropriate for a heavy van that does a high mileage, regularly pulls trailers laden with mini-diggers and may find itself being bounced across construction sites. They may be equally inappropriate for a vehicle on city parcels delivery work that’s stopping and starting all the time.

What about van speed limiters?

A van must be equipped with a limiter that restricts its top speed to 70mph. That may be a bit of a technical challenge so far as some vehicles already in service are concerned, but such a limiter should certainly be fitted to all newly-acquired vans. As well as making sense from the safety viewpoint, it’s good news so far as fuel economy, CO2 emissions and general wear and tear on components are concerned. It should be good news for residual values too.

It should also mean that drivers are less likely to be penalised for speeding. But surely one of the problems is that the delivery schedules set by some firms may mean that some requirements – sticking to the speed limit for instance – could be breached?

Responsible firms make huge efforts to ensure that deliveries are scheduled without the need to speed. One of the over-arching requirements of the code is that members must comply with all elements of it when planning their operations.


Must code signatories forbid their drivers to use mobile phones while driving?

No, but they have to be used in a legal and safe manner.

Are businesses inspected before they can join the scheme?

Yes. There’s a mandatory pre-acceptance audit and annual re-accreditation audit too. The fees have yet to be finalised but will be kept as low as possible. The code has teeth, and ultimately you could be removed as a code member if your standards decline to an unacceptably low level; but the aim is to encourage improvement rather than to wield a big stick. At first these audits will be conducted by the FTA although it may possibly be the case that other auditing arrangements will be brought in long term. The code is backed by a governance group of operators and I wouldn’t view it as a static document. I’m sure it will grow and evolve in the coming years.

How much support have you received for the code from operators in the run-up to its official launch?

Over 50, running a total of 75,000 to 80,000 vans, have signed a declaration of intent to join and we expect a good number of them to be early adopters. A register of operators who have signed up will be publicly accessible on-line and we would greatly encourage them to do everything in their power to let everybody know that they’re members of the scheme. It will have a logo that can be displayed on company vehicles and literature although this is not mandatory.


Do you have to be an FTA member to join?

No – it’s open to all van operators of any size.

So might a successful implementation of the code help head off what could be unwelcome regulation of vans in the future?

The FTA has a track record of offering sensible, pragmatic alternatives to legislation rather than just saying no; and the code falls into that pattern.

For further information on the Van Excellence Code please contact the Freight Transport Association on 01892 526171 (www.fta.co.uk). FTA members run approximately 1.2m light commercials between them. Eighty-five per cent of FTA member companies operate vans and more than 2000 of them run over 25 each.