Meet the top van drivers in the UK

Driving competitions and incentives might be viewed as a bit of fun and light relief from the day job, but they have a serious side too – ultimately producing better, safer drivers.

One of the most prestigious is the Freight Transport Association’s (FTA) Van Excellence Driver of the Year competition, which was launched in 2014. And this year, as ever, the standard was particularly high.

Eventual winner was Mathew Young from AAH Pharmaceuticals, one of two drivers taking part from the company, which has held its own annual driver competition for the last 16 years. He beat stiff competition to take the top prize after contestants took part in six challenges – driving style, economy, manoeuvring, defect checking, risk awareness and legislation (see panel below and results overleaf).

The industry clearly sees the benefits of such competitions and businesses are keen to put their best drivers forward. Amey, which operates more than 8,500 vehicles, has taken part since it was launched – and telematics, which the company introduced to its fleet in 2009, plays a big role in identifying the winners.

Amey fleet compliance manager Julie Davies says: “You’ve got to make drivers feel that you aren’t spying on them , but rather you want to help them become better drivers.

“Competitions like this are really good at making drivers see why you are doing it. You can’t just tell them, sometimes you have to show them.”

Martine Smith, distribution services manager at AAH Pharmaceuticals, created the company’s own event for its 1,800 drivers and says: “It’s a great incentive for the drivers. They all have the chance to take part in the main event, which is a great fun day out. Traditionally it was based on a points system but we have recently adopted a new telematics system which will be incorporated into our competition in future.”   

But, maintaining that performance and encouraging drivers to engage with telematics poses the biggest challenge for fleet managers.

Fleet consultant Darren Bell warns that fleets must be aware of the ‘Hawthorne effect’ (the alteration of behaviour by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed). He says: “Installing telematics comes at a cost to your business, so to make the most of that investment the data must be used in productive way. If drivers know their data is not being studied and acted upon, any improvements will soon diminish.”

A collaborative approach to driver improvement, therefore, is likely to have the greatest impact in achieving a lasting change in driver behaviour.

Mark Cartwright, head of vans at the FTA, says: “What drivers like is being recognised for being good at what they do. Telematics allows them to see how they compare against colleagues and gives operators a way to address problems. 

“More importantly it is a great way to identify and recognise those drivers who are doing a fantastic job under difficult circumstances.”

Driver Terry King from Balfour Beatty thinks all fleets should run competitions. He says: “It helps build awareness and improves the way people drive when they are all competing.”

Riverford Organic Farms runs its own competitions and delivery driver Gary Day has taken part in them in the past. He says: “I think it’s a great way to engage drivers and make them realise how their actions can directly affect the business. 

“I have never experienced telematics before as a driver but Riverford had the system in place when I started. I think it makes you a better driver as you are aware that you’re being monitored.”

But Lisa Hanley from G4S points out that not all drivers will readily accept the system: “You have to re-learn the way you drive in order to suit telematics. At first it was a big shock – all the drivers were panicking that if we had to drive slower then we wouldn’t get all the work done.”  

But they quickly adapted and a combination of coaching and internal driving competitions helped to turn opinions around. 

“The support we receive is really positive, the scores are put up each week and everyone tries to get to the top of the board. Overall I’d say that driving standards have got a lot better,” she adds.

The competition challenges that tested the best in the business

Economic driving Winner: Colin Shearer, Kelly Fleet Services

This exercise was all about saving money. It measured the driver’s actual fuel usage over a set route using both telematics and the vehicle’s on-board computer. 

To win, drivers needed to show a range of economy-boosting techniques, including gear selection, avoiding unnecessary braking and moderating throttle use.

Terry King of Balfour Beatty says: “There are a number of ways a driver can reduce fuel economy, such as switching off the engine instead of idling. But driving style can have the biggest impact. Coasting in gear, for example, the vehicle uses no fuel, but shift to neutral or dip the clutch and the engine needs fuel to stay on.”

Driving style Winner: Mathew Young, AAH Pharmaceutical

During the fuel economy test, each driver followed a sat-nav on a pre-defined route. They were also monitored on speed, cornering, braking and  acceleration to ensure they completed the drive as smoothly as possible. Jeremy Gould, vice president of sales at Tom Tom Telematics, which sponsored the driving test, says: “An average score of 8.9 out of 10 demonstrated strong driving standards across a range of performance indicators.”

Mark Lovett, head of commerical vehicles at LeasePlan, the event’s overall sponsor, adds: “This test was key to ensuring the reliability and longevity of a vehicle. Heavy braking causes wear to brake components, hard cornering wears tyres out and aggressive acceleration can affect the drivetrain. Not only will this add extra maintenance requirements but it will increase the downtime of that particular vehicle.”

Pre-use defect check Winner: Terry King, Balfour Beatty

Perhaps one of the most important parts of running an effective van fleet, pre-use checking ensures the vehicle is safe and legal to drive. In this challenge a van was prepared with a number of common (and some less common) faults. Each contestant had 10 minutes to list every fault they could find.

Mark Cartwright of the FTA says: “If you look at what the majority of vans fail their first MOT on, it is usually something we would expect a driver to pick up in a defect check. This tells us there are a lot of operators out there who aren’t carrying out pre-use checks, which is an absolute foundation block of operating in a safe and proper manner.” 

Risk awareness Winner: Jonathan Walls, Alliance Healthcare

With automated driving technology a few years off and a lack of commercial vehicles offering automatic braking or pedestrian detection, it is still up to the driver to avoid a crash. Much like the hazards
awareness element of a driving test, this computer-based activity required the drivers to watch video simulations and identify potential road risks.

Lovett says: “This is another key attribute for a safe driver. The legal implications of a collision, no matter how big or small, can be substantial. Coupled with vehicle downtime and an injured driver, it’s a scenario no one wants to be in.”

Legislation Winner: Terry King, Balfour Beatty

The legislation test was the most challenging for the majority of contestants on the day. The multiple choice quiz included questions about weight, speed, working hours and the highway code.

Gary Day of Riverford Organic Farms says: “The legislation test was the most difficult part. I deliver fruit and veg in a small van and some of the questions were about things I would never come across.”

Cartwright adds: “They knew what they were doing in relation to the vehicles they drive but it highlighted that operators do need to be switched on if they are moving drivers between vehicles – are they confident with the legislation relating to that vehicle?”

Manoeuvring Winner: Lisa Hanley, G4S

Undoubtedly the most fun element of the day. Drivers had the chance to really prove their worth by negotiating obstacles and demonstrating awareness of both the vehicle and their surroundings.

To ensure the test was as challenging as possible the other contestants weren’t allowed to watch and all the parking sensors on the vehicle were disabled.

Lovett says: “It’s important to make sure drivers are competent in their day-to-day work in compounds, yards or depots. Safe drivers reduce the risk of damage so it’s a really nice element of the competition.”

Hanley adds: “It was great to be recognised for my driving ability. I usually drive an armoured cash-in-transit vehicle in London, which is difficult as it has limited visibility and I wear body armour. The minefield of buses, taxis and cyclists don’t make things easier.”

The FTA driver of the year award: the top three

1st place: Mathew Young, AAH Pharmaceutical

Job role: Delivery driver Time in role: 18 years 

Young delivers time-critical medical supplies to a number of locations around Merthyr Tydfil and the Valleys from his base in Swansea. 

“The whole day was great fun – I enjoyed the challenges and the chance to prove my ability behind the wheel,” he says.

With an average mileage of 45,000 per year, he adds: “I think I am conscientious. I like to look out for other road users. It’s something I believe in as a motorist – we all need to share the road and I see no reason to drive differently for work.”

A big part of that mentality comes from his employer. Young says: “The company has a big culture for safety and we are expected to uphold the values of the brand whenever we are.”

2nd place: Lisa Hanley, G4S

Job role: Cash-in-transit driver Time in role: 12 years

Hanley was the only female in the competition and also has one of the most demanding driving roles day-to-day, delivering and collecting cash in and around central London.  

She says: “I’m the only girl at my depot and I’m the only girl here today. I think that’s a big deal.”

Having never taken part in any type or driving competition before, Hanley says she was attracted by the prospect of the £1,000 holiday voucher but also the kudos of being one of the country’s best van drivers. 

She took home an iPad as runner-up and says: “The holiday would have been a great prize but I’m more than happy just to be recognised for my achievements today and to represent girl power.”

3rd place: Gary Day, Riverford Organic Farms 

Job role: Delivery driver Time in to role: three years

Despite having the least driving experience of all the contestants, Day performed extremely well in all the tests. He switched to a career as a van driver having spent 20 years as a car salesman.

“Van driving is a lot better than I initially expected but I think it has a lot to do with the company you work for,” he says. 

“I have a lot of driving experience but have only been driving vans since I started at Riverford.”

He found the manoeuvring to be the most enjoyable part of the day as the vehicle used for the tests (Mercedes Sprinter) was larger than the one he usually drives, posing a greater challenge.

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