THE HEALTH AND SAFETY RISKS OF ABNORMAL LOAD MOVEMENTS ARE OBVIOUS. LARGE AND HEAVY OBJECTS ON THE MOVE ARE NORMALLY TREATED WITH RESPECT BY MOST WHO SEE THEM. BUT SPARE A THOUGHT FOR THE PROFESSIONAL ESCORT DRIVERS, WHO ARE OFTEN THE FIRST PERSON THE PUBLIC GLIMPSE WHEN A BIG LOAD IS ON THE ROAD. HOW DO THEY GET TREATED? IAN NORWELL TALKS TO STAV MONTERAY, WHO RUNS HULL-BASED, WIDE LOAD ESCORTS LTD. IT’S NOT PRETTY.
PHOTOGRAPHY: CRAIG PUSEY
The escorting of abnormal loads by road was passed to the private sector in the late nineties (leaving the police to allegedly spend more time catching criminals). The task of clearing the way for abnormal loads has fallen to private abload escort companies – or to specialist drivers on the heavy haulier’s payroll. Many of them are ex-truck drivers or steersmen, and that’s reassuring – since they will have some idea about the path an abload needs to take. However, they need no special qualifications, so are un-licenced and unregulated. Conversations we’ve had with established professionals show how they’re landed with enormous responsibility, but scant authority.
LIFE AND LIMB
Stav is in his early sixties; he’s been a professional driver for over thirty years. In 2009 he set up his own abload escorting company in Hull. He believes the time has come for changes. He’s the recent victim of an aggressive motorist, and the court case has just concluded. Suffice to say he was deliberately run down by a car, from behind, while he was directing the progress of a wind turbine tower section. The event was witnessed by a site manager and site engineer: Stav was badly bruised.
Considering the likelihood of a far more serious injury, and that the individual was found guilty, we are astonished that he was only fined £300 for dangerous driving, and given eight penalty points. The wilful nature of the offence, essentially using a vehicle as an offensive weapon, and its potential, seems to have escaped the Court. If this was an isolated occurrence by an unhinged car driver, it would be bad enough. But he tells us that abuse from motorists happens almost daily: “It comes down to the toxic combination of our lack of legal authority on the highway, and the ignorance of the general motoring public.” He also agrees that incidents of vehicles being used as offensive weapons is on the increase, abload or not.
Professional drivers are already well aware that the general driving public are what educationalists would call a mixed-ability group. It’s obviously unreasonable to expect the average car driver to have even a vague appreciation of the path that an abload may need to take. Indeed, he or she may not even be able to see the load when an escort vehicle requests them to stop or pull over. But it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to respond to direction. There’s probably a parallel here with the general societal trend of lack of respect for any authority.
In Europe, the situation is different, says Stav: “Qualified escorts in a number of countries have the authority to direct traffic. It works well, and it’s a lot safer because the general driving public recognise and acknowledge their authority.” Now brace yourselves for an inconvenient truth. In Stav’s experience – and his colleagues in the industry – the worst culprits in the UK are not the classic boy-racers, but middle-aged women. And before you cry for the politically correct police, he cites them as top offenders not because they are aggressive or abusive – they are simply completely oblivious to the need to stop or pull over.
A van with ‘ESCORT VEHICLE’ emblazoned on it? With flashing beacons? People on foot in the road wearing hi-viz safety gear? Making hand signals? For some road users this is not enough. In particular, the rotating orange flashing beacon – the ‘girofar’ so beloved by the French – has become debased as a warning of anything. Even hand-held, self-propelled street sweepers have them. It’s little wonder they’ve lost their effect. “We need a colour of our own, like purple maybe, to get the message over,” says Stav. He points out that medical-emergency doctors’ vehicles use green, which is cleverly close to blue. Introducing a new colour would help separate an abload movement from a council sweeper, and the galaxy of twinkling orange lights bespattering the highway environment.
Passing the job from the police to the private sector – yet having no regulation, licensing, or set standards of competence – meant the government essentially de-skilled a task needing a considerable level of aptitude and expertise. The HTA (Heavy Transport Association) is currently working on proposals for City and Guilds qualifications for escort drivers and escort managers. Their efforts are to be applauded.
Without legislation, it is only by some kind of formal qualification (allied to the membership of a professional industry body like the HTA) that any progress will be made. Currently having no legal power to stop or direct traffic – but clearly needing to do so – leaves escort vehicles in the worst possible position. Evidence from Stav, and his fellow professionals in the escorting sector, confirm the average road user seems to need more clear directions than those provided by any amount of beacons and hi-viz. But even in the era of the DCPC (driver’s certificate of professional competence) there are still no formal qualifications required to set up an abnormal load escorting business. Stav’s practical qualifications are apparent. But he also has an international reputation and speaks five languages, so he’s not a run-of-the-mill driver: “Based in Hull, 80% of my customers are European, so an ability with languages is not just handy, it keeps things safe.” He also says that there should be a minimum size of vehicle used for abload escorting. He’s seen a smart car on escort work, with a beacon bungeed on to the roof. Nippy it might be: visible it’s not.
This lack of regulation and professional qualification just adds to the problem. As Stav says: “The great majority of escort companies, and those employed directly by the heavy haulage firms, do a great job and are highly professional. They don’t get the recognition for it. Sadly, it’s the same old story. A few amateurs, who think it’s easy, degrade the image of everyone else.”
EYES AND EARS
In defending himself against false accusations and aggressive motorists Stav has invested in a video-camera. Unfortunately it failed to capture the images of him being run down away from his vehicle. But they are now commonplace on buses, trucks, taxis, even bicycles. Appropriate footage would prevent fraudulent and frivolous cases getting to court, and prove who is in the right in serious accidents. They are getting cheaper and smaller all the time.
If you are on the receiving end of abuse or even physical assault, it could be worth the investment. But even ‘blues-and-twos’ are losing their bite. Standing out from the audible and visual urban ‘noise’ is getting harder all the time. To combat how much the general public have become inured to sirens and lights, for some years the Metropolitan Police’s SEG (special escort group) have used whistles. True. They move heads of state and top Royals around the capital. From Heathrow to Buckingham Palace is a typical trip. And, along with sublime traffic-management skills, they use the good old Acme Thunderer whistle to alert pedestrians and other road users.
Its shrill tone penetrates vehicle cabins, forces the attention they need to do their job. In the absence of anyone at the DfT or the DVSA giving a fig, I think I’d invest in one.