Friday 20 October 2017

'Workplaces on wheels' are not just more comfortable, they're safer too

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van Concept
Mercedes-Benz Vision Van Concept
A van driver's cabin is a workspace
Ford interior

Brian Byrne

Time was, the cabin of a van was an unlovely place. Tacky trim, painted metal, clunky controls, noisy, with seats made for extended durability rather than comfort. That's no more.

Today's van operator areas can rival the driver's space in a modern passenger car, and the controls and safety systems can typically be up to the same standards.

Dashboard and trim materials still aren't plush. But plush isn't what a tradesman requires when hefting tools and folders and boxes around the cabin.

What is needed is places to put stuff, and that's one area where most modern vans score over passenger cars, with extra storage space. But the relatively tougher trim in today's vans is of a much higher perceived quality than before.

Comfort is the real game-changer. Comfort equals safety, and safety has become paramount, with the regulatory emphasis on professional work driving.

A van driver's cabin is a workplace; their 'office'. A van driver will typically spend most of the day getting in and out and moving the 'workplace' from place to place. If that workplace isn't comfortable, the driver will tire more easily. And a tired driver is, from research, as big a problem as a drunk driver. A tired professional driver, on the road for greater distances and durations, is an even greater risk.

So van drivers need at least as much comfort as private car drivers.

Excess noise in any environment is tiring. So today's vans are insulated much more both from engine and road noise, and booming from the cargo area (except for those, mostly smaller vans, without solid bulkheads).

Straining to listen to a poor radio distracts and adds to fatigue. So the entertainment and information systems are now on a par with those in private cars. For instance, a DAB digital radio system is standard on the new Peugeot Expert.

A van has to be manoeuvred in much more difficult traffic and delivery conditions than a car owner generally experiences, so visibility aids like larger mirrors and, increasingly, reversing cameras, are now commonly standard. In other examples, to comply with construction site rules, for instance, the new Citroen Dispatch offers built-in high-level warning flashers.

Van drivers are under pressure to meet delivery deadlines to more locations on a duty tour, so the provision of GPS sat-nav, and a proper facility to use computers or tablets is nowadays better than in private cars. The Renault Trafic is just one which can have a centre-console 'desktop' to safely place such equipment while in use (not while driving, of course).

None of that will take the place of professional driving practices which prevent fatigue driving in the first instance. As a member of the EU, drivers in Ireland of commercial vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are regulated by the Working Time Directive. There are no specific regulations in Ireland on the Road Safety Authority website for those driving vehicles of 3.5t or under, but in Britain a Domestic Drivers' Hours Rules applies to all employed drivers of commercial vehicles regardless of size. A key one is that a van operator can't drive for more than 10 hours per day.

Driving all day is not the most healthy of occupations, and the Health & Safety Authority, the Garda and the Road Safety Authority have jointly issued 'Driving for Work Driver Health Guidelines'. These include advice on how to reduce the possibility of fatigue and how to recognise and deal with stress. A key suggestion is for drivers to discuss such issues with managers if they arise. Employers have a duty to ensure that rostering, delivery deadlines, and driving durations do not increase risk of dangerous situations.

More than 14,000 road collisions in Ireland over a recent four-year period were likely work related, says the Health & Safety Authority. The vehicles involved some 4,672 vans, trucks and buses. There are many more vans on the road than the other two categories, and inevitably involved in more incidents.

Making vans more comfortable, and providing safety systems equal to those in cars, such as lane-keeping assist, emergency autonomous braking, and fatigue warnings are just some of the enhanced specification of today's vans which aims to help cut such figures.

And the future? Well, maybe exemplified by the Mercedes-Benz Vision Van Concept given its public debut at the recent CES in Las Vegas: all connectivity, electric drive, on-board drones and robots to make the 'last mile' deliveries, and a driver's cockpit like something out of Star Trek. That'll be the next Sprinter, thank you.

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