Until recently, every utility company had a fleet of identical and easily recognisable 4x4s which would see them through winters and over mountains. Thanks to recent innovations in traction control and the expansion in the SUV market, we now have access to vehicles which promise more flexibility, safety and efficiency than ever before.
For when you really need to get there:
Crossover vehicles are a simple and effective option to keep people moving in winter, or across low-grip surfaces such as wet grass or gravel tracks. Two wheel drive vehicles with intelligent traction control systems can be very capable in slippery conditions. Automatic all-wheel drive systems, requiring no operator input are also widely available on both vans and cars. These crossovers may only require 4×4 familiarisation training to cover how the systems work and safe driving techniques for low-grip surfaces. Weight increase over a standard company car or van is negligible and, as they’re not designed with clearance in mind for rough terrain, the centre of gravity is kept low. These vehicles, especially when fitted with winter tyres, are the safest and lowest cost option for companies looking to ensure they have good capability when the snow begins to fall.
Where these vehicles begin to lose ground is over rougher terrain. Here the standard 4×4 or pick-up options come into their own. These vehicles sit higher than standard cars and vans in order to gain clearance when traversing rough ground or following rutted tracks, so on-road stability can be compromised. After a light dusting of snow, drivers who may not know which buttons to press or lever to push and vehicles which are often normally rear-wheel drive can turn a roundabout into a treacherous roll-over hazard. Training for these vehicles is essential and requires proper training for PUWER compliance (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations), especially for on-road use where the risk of injury is highest. Knowing when and how to switch from two to four wheel drive must be covered, as well as ABS, traction control and electronic stability programmes.
For true off-road use, pick-ups and 4x4s are no longer the only option. For larger load carrying capacity, off-road capable vans are available which can compete with some specialist all-terrain vehicles in the rough stuff. Here is where training really gives drivers the skills required to get to places other vehicles simply cannot reach. Off-road driver training introduces techniques for coping with severe clearance problems as well as wading through floods and climbing or descending steep slopes in a controlled manner. There are relatively few recorded incidents of injury where drivers have been working off-road, and professional drivers are more likely to damage their vehicles off-road than themselves, so training should be geared towards control and minimising the cost of damage and maintenance. If the vehicle is safe, then both the load and the occupants should be intact as well!
Whatever vehicles you opt for, give equal consideration to tyre choices. Even on 4x4s, summer road tyres are often fitted as standard. Unless winter tyres are specified, you may find your big 4×4 unable to climb a snowy hill that a lighter two wheel drive van with winter tyres will easily ascend. But beware of the testosterone tendency for big knobbly mud tyres. Even within the utility sector, most of these vehicles will spend the majority of their time on tarmac. Compromising safety by specifying a tyre designed for deep mud, when the highest risk area for all drivers is on-road, is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Finally we come to duty of care. There are so many companies providing ‘4×4 training’ out there, you can be forgiven for getting confused. For many of the vehicles and drivers, familiarisation training and a simple roads, tracks and trails course, covering floods, snow and ice would be ideal. If a true ‘off-road’ driving qualification is needed then the RoSPA 4×4 Professional Off-Road Driving course, which is recognised by government and all major contractors, would be essential. Always specify that trainers are DVSA Approved Driving Instructors when tendering, if any of the training is to be carried out on public roads, as this is a legal requirement, though there are still national companies offering 4×4 training with agricultural instructors who cannot provide the level of on-road familiarisation required. Techniques off-road may clash with health and safety legislation and best practice when driving on-road in winter or flood conditions.
A little time spent on vehicle choice and driver competence will ensure you have the capability to deal with whatever the weather and the terrain may bring.
(Article adapted from one which first appeared in Utility & Contractor Fleet Manager magazine.)
For more information about how Beyond 4×4 can help, please contact us.