Van driving tips for the novice

  • | by Dave Jenkins

Congratulations on hiring a van! Or, indeed, if you’ve just purchased your first.

From now, you are king of the road. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. With a bit of foresight and know-how, vans can provide one of the most enjoyable outlooks Blighty's highways can offer...even if you’re likely to be using it for a mundane chore.

It's a common misconception that vans are stressful to drive. And prior to the days of power steering and turbo diesel, they probably were. They're certainly not now. The key is to avoid stress – then it can be one of the most enjoyable ways to drive.

For added assurance I've checked in with Andy McNamara, a professional Man In A Van and, quite possibly, the most chilled out, philosophical van driver I've ever spoken to. So, read on for a few tips on driving vans for the novice...

Insure Thing

If you’ve bought a van yourself, then make sure you’ve got your van insurance in place before you take to the road. Hire vans usually come with their own van insurance policy in place. But take a look at the small print. How much is that excess? Most hire company excesses are much larger than your conventional motoring ones. It's not unusual to find excesses of £800 or so!

However, there is often an optional additional cost, usually of about £10-£15 extra per day, to increase the coverage and reduce your excess. If you’re in any doubt of how you’ll take to the van, or you’re driving it to a dodgy area, the additional coverage is an investment that it may be worth considering.

Are you Transitting comfortably?

Your first few moments sitting behind the wheel may feel strange. You'll instantly notice the lack of rear view. Calm down and look forward: you've got the best viewpoint any driver can have! You're not as cumbersomely lofty as a lorry yet you still tower over cars.

Your command of the road more than makes up for the loss of a rear view mirror. Plus you're blessed with huge wing mirrors. Once you've adjusted the seat to the optimum comfort position (you're likely to be driving all day in it, so the right position is crucial), take the time to adjust your mirrors so you can see as much of the road behind you as possible.

Get acquainted

Familiarise yourself with all the functions; where are the indicators, headlights, hazards and wipers? Which side is the fuel cap on? Where's the bonnet switch? Most importantly, where's the horn?

Check the gears; usually conveniently placed on the left just off the dash adjacent to the wheel. If it's a modern van you may have a sixth gear. It's best to discover this now and not 60 miles and an unnecessary load of extra diesel down the road.

How high is the van? If it's a standard long wheel base Transit you won't have trouble with bridges but it's important to understand the size of your wheels. Get used to the brakes; they're designed for a full load can be a little sharp and over responsive if the van's empty.

Know the road

Don't just get cosy with the controls; work out your route or directions before you leave. Unknown territories are instant stress spots, especially in a vehicle you've only just started driving. Plot the satnav, revise the map and leave with plenty of time to spare.

How to load a van

“Put the heavies and solids down first,” says Andy. “There's no point in putting boxes down then washing machines on top is there? Things that are tall are always going to fall, so tie them up! If you're in doubt, tie it up or I guarantee you'll be in a mess when you arrive!”

It's also recommended you spread the load evenly across the base and that particularly heavy haulage should be in the centre. But don't get too carried away; in 2007 over half the vans weighed by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency were overweight. Uneven, overambitious loads have a massive effect on a van's stability.

Be safe

One last task before you hit the road; lock the doors! The last thing you want is your cargo spilling all over the road. Plus we've all seen the signs on builders' vans, directed at sticky fingered chancers. Keep everything out of sight and remove from the van if you leave it unattended. As it's a hire van you can wave goodbye to your hefty deposit and even heftier excess if someone breaks a window or jimmy's the door.

Be cool

Successful van driving is best done at a leisurely pace. Even if time is tight, rushing won't get you any further and is guaranteed to cause aggravation with fellow road users.

Rushing can cause serious problems if you find yourself in the fast lane as you hit a gradient as you'll lose your acceleration quicker than you can shout 'alright love!' out of the window. Approach corners with caution, being careful not to hug them too closely or you'll clip the curb or, worse still, another car.

The same level of caution should be adopted when reversing into a parking space. Perhaps the van's only genuinely stressful aspect; there's no harm in getting your co-driver to jump out and give you direction. Bottom line; slow is good.Not only for tricky parking manoeuvres but remember your braking distance is longer than a car anyway. Get lively with over-exaggerated driving actions, too.

Pretend you're sitting your driving test; early indicator signals, steady pace and serial mirror checks. These puppies are indispensible when you hit the motorway. If anything they give you a better view behind you than a lot of domestic cars do.

But while you're studying the road, don't let any driving idiocy you see get to you; when you're out driving all day you'll see more than your fair share of terrible road behaviour. “I don't notice them any more,” explains McNamara, who actually met his wife on one particular removal job. “The road is the road, just concentrate on what you're doing. You've got 100,000s of people doing what you're doing, sometimes things just happen. That's life! You can't control other people so there's no point in worrying about them!”

Finally, be nice...

The final thing you'll notice as you get to know your van, and enjoy your new heightened position on the road, is the behaviour amongst other van drivers. Eschewing the tired white van man stereotype, expect fellow van men to pull out for you on the motorway or let you through on narrow streets. And be prepared to do the same for them. “I guess there is an unwritten rule. Van drivers let van drivers out,” says Andy. “Even if there's not, you think there is so everyone does it. A subconscious thing. At the end of the day, just be friendly. Be courteous to other road users and that's it. It's nice to be nice!"