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Warning: reduce speed now

Date: 22 August 2007

More commercial vehicle fleets are turning to voluntary speed limiters to improve safety, save fuel and even improve the company image, writes Nick Gibbs

How many times do your van drivers break the speed limit on the motorway? Colin Marriott, fleet manager for British Gas, knows exactly how many times: none. He knows because his vans are fitted with speed limiters, meaning the drivers can't break 70mph. And he's not the only one.

Speed limiters have become a hot topic recently for a number of reasons. Limiters for vans over 3.5 tonnes became mandatory in new vehicles from 2005, and from the start of next year they have to be retrofitted to all heavy vans and trucks built after October 2001.

There's no legal requirement as yet for light vans (see box, opposite page), but that isn't stopping the technology being applied because the benefits are exactly the same.

Chief among these is safety, with one trial, carried out by the Department for Transport in Leeds a couple of years back concluding that country-wide speed limiting would save 1000 lives a year. Then there's fuel economy and the associated environmental advantages. Another study, this time from Dutch-based environmental consultancy CE Delft, concluded that limiting vans to 62mph would reduce van CO2 emissions as much as 7.6% by 2020.

There's also the savings stemming from reduced tyre and engine wear, not to mention the reduced driver wear.

For Colin Marriott at British Gas, limiting his vans to 70mph would play another important role. "We did it primarily for driver safety, but also brand protection," he says. "When you've got liveried vans it's not good in the eyes of the customers to see them flying past at very high speeds. We received a large number of complaints about our motorway driving, but since fitting the limiters we've seen a reduction."

How does it work?

Limiters are essentially a bit of software either inside or advising the Electronic Control Unit. Order a limiter from the likes of Ford (£25 plus vat for the Transit) or Citroen (£70 plus vat for the Relay) and the ECU itself is changed. Go aftermarket from someone like Oldham-based Autokontrol and you'll get a separate black box that plugs into the ECU.

The aftermarket route costs a chunk more (Autokontrol charges around £400 plus), but if when the fleet comes to sell the van, disabling the limiter is a simple matter of cutting a wire. To derestrict a speed-limited Mercedes Sprinter or Ford Transit involves a trip back to the dealership plus the cost for an hour or so of remapping.

Aftermarket limiters are also infinitely flexible on the set speed. Ford offers 56mph, 62mph or 70mph, but Autokontrol sales boss Gerry Leggat recalls one firm who put in an order for a 75mph maximum on the basis that speedos usually under-read.

The warranty issue is hazy. Autokontrol has worked with Citroen to fit aftermarket limiters for fleet customers like British Gas, so there's no problem there. But Leggat is confident no manufacturer would go far as to void a warranty, mainly because a limiter can only increase engine life.

It's worth checking, too, with the manufacturer that a factory-fit limiter can be derestricted. For example, Citroen's own optional speed limiter for the Relay (at either 56mph or 62mph) is set for life.

That might depress resale values, but the professional consensus is that secondhand buyers would welcome a van that obviously hadn't been hammered (at least at motorway speeds), as long as the limiter could be removed. "With many vans going back to work as courier and delivery vans, speed limiters are unlikely to be a welcome feature," says BCA's Duncan Ward. "Generally, used buyers prefer the highest available power and performance in whatever size or shape of van they are interested in."

However, Colin Marriott at British Gas isn't concerned: "Our leasing companies have taken an optimistic view about residuals - they expect good prices when customers realise the vans haven't been driven to excess."

Resistance from drivers used to making up time on motorways might be harder to absorb. At British Gas, the biggest problem Marriott found was getting them to alter their driving style. "They found it quite difficult initially to adjust. They were getting themselves in situations where before they would have used speed to get out of trouble. Now they couldn't," he says. "However because we are supporting the reduction with driver training, they are driving better and safer and are quite supportive now."

Gerry Leggat at Autokontrol echoes this: "A driver might say a 70mph limit is dangerous because he can't overtake, but that's exactly what makes it safer."

The problem with limiters is that they only work at the maximum speed limit. The driver is still free to careen through towns and villages whether in a limited van or not. Even the trickery of telematics can't be brought to bear on this conundrum, mainly because there isn't a fool proof map of speed limits.

It's possible there will be. The DfT-funded scheme in Leeds called for a complete mapping of all local limits, ensuring that the 20 satellite-tracked Skoda Fabias would be electronically limited to the maximum speed of whatever road they were travelling on. But a national database is a long way off, and by that time it's possible all commercial vehicles will be limited anyway (see box, below).

Colin Marriott at British Gas isn't that concerned about limiting his drivers on all roads. "Our future strategy is more likely to try to change driver behaviour than limit speeds. We're doing a huge amount of driver training and we already see improved fuel consumption," he says: "I think limiting speed to the speed limit is just one aspect, along with improving driving behaviour, increasing anticipation, leaving more gaps and reading the road more effectively. We get a greater return on our investment, I believe."

He's also happy not to be fielding angry complaints about tailgating Berlingos on the motorways. And that for a fleet manager might be just the impetus needed to electronically remove the lead from the drivers' right feet.