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 on, you are the ruler of the road, whether you're moving house, getting the band to a gig, or planning a house clear. 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.

So, read on for a few insider tips on driving vans for the novice... 

1. Compare van insurance quotes

If you’ve bought a van, then make sure you’ve got your van insurance in place before you take to the road.

However, 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 to £1,000, and this could rise if there's more than one of you driving.

There's may be 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 may be worth considering.

2. Adjust the van's mirrors and seats

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.

You can buy wireless rear view camera kits for vans too, but don't forget you're also 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.

3. Get to know van functions and electronics

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, they're usually conveniently placed on the left just off the dash, adjacent to the wheel. Do you 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 so can be a little sharp and over responsive if the van's empty.

4. Plan your journey

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 sat-nav, revise the map and leave with plenty of time to spare.

5. Learn how to load the van 

Put the heavies and solids down first. 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 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 - uneven, overambitious loads have a massive effect on a van's stability.

6. Always lock the van doors

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 any valuables from the van if you leave it unattended. If it's a hire van you can wave goodbye to your hefty deposit and even heftier excess if someone breaks a window or jimmies the door.

7. Drive at a safe speed

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 and you hit a gradient as you'll lose your acceleration. Approach corners with caution, being careful not to hug them too closely or you'll clip the curb or, worse still, another car.

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

8. Brake in plenty of time

Remember that the heavier your payload, and the larger your van, the longer it'll take you to come to a complete stop.

Leave plenty of space between your van and the vehicle in front. If travelling on the motorway at 70mph, your stopping distance could be as much as 96m in dry conditions. And, if you haven't stacked heavy cargo evenly, always take extra care swinging around corners and roundabouts to avoid toppling your van.

Certain new vans may boast automatic braking. For instance, Fords' latest Transit van model contains both pre-collision assist and active braking technology. The pre-collision tech watches the road and detects potential accidents and collisions, warning you of any close dangers. If you don't respond to the warning, active braking will step in and apply the brakes (but obviously, never rely on technology and always stay alert on the road!).

9. Parking the van

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.

Depending on the make and model of the van you're driving, it may boast in-built reversing camera technology, plus parking sensors. Peugeot's Partner van, specifically its Professional model, which starts new on the road from £20,926, has both features.

10. Avoid road rage

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. You can't control other people so there's no point in worrying about them!” 

11. Help other van drivers

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 among other van drivers. Eschewing the tired stereotype, expect fellow van drivers to pull out for you on the motorway or let you through on narrow streets. And be prepared to do the same for them.

If you've got your eye on a van, find the right insurance easily by comparing quotes with GoCompare