Being able to drive a van is a very useful skill to have as a runner. In the UK, if you’re over 25 with a full manual driving licence, chances are, you’ll be more likely to get that runner driver job.
But what if you’ve never driven a van before?
On one of my first runner driver jobs in film, I was required drive a van. During a phone interview with the production manager on the phone, she asked if I could drive a Luton. “Yes no problem!” I said, and I got the job.
Then I googled “what is a Luton”
“That’s a Luton?! How am I going to drive this beast??” If you’ve never driven a van before it can seem a bit daunting, at the time I had only driven small cars.
I’ve done a few jobs now driving large vans and I still get a little bit nervous getting behind the big wheel but I’m a lot more confident. The more I drive a van, the more I realise that essentially it’s just a large car and pretty much the same as driving a car.
That being said, other than its size, there are many other things you have to consider with hire vans as opposed to cars.
Here are 10 tips that I wish I had the first time I drove a large van on a production:
When booking out a hire car, the hirer will walk you around the vehicle pointing out any current damage, the same is done with a van. I’d recommend taking pictures of any visible damage to cover yourself and the production from getting charged for damage that wasn’t your fault.
Before you drive, it’s essential that you know the fuel type and the height and width of the vehicle. You don’t want to kill the engine or decapitate the van under a low bridge, you, and or the production would definitely get charged for that.
2. Get Comfortable
Take the time to adjust all of the mirrors and the seat positioning to what’s comfortable for you, also familiarise yourself with the van’s controls such as the indicators, headlights, hazards and radio.
A van’s engine can pack a bit more of a punch than a car, so when you first try to pull off it’s possible that you’ll shoot forward and stall. Don’t worry, just hope someone wasn’t watching and try again. Before hitting the main roads, it’s a good idea to drive round a block a few times just to get used to the engine power, biting point, and how the gear changes and brakes feel.
Soon it will feel like just driving another car.
3. Mirrors Are Your Best Friends
They’re not just your best friends, they’re you’re only friends. In a van you don’t have the luxury of a rear view mirror, and you’re definitely going to miss it! However, in a van you have a higher viewpoint of the road and large side mirrors to make up for it.
You’ll need to be checking your side mirrors much more frequently than you would in a car. Bearing in mind the cumbersome size of a van, the side mirrors are your main guide when parking, manoeuvring, changing lanes, turning corners and driving in general.
When turning corners in a van I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the side mirror to see when if I’ve got enough turning space, taking into account the longer length of the vehicle.
4. Know Your Blind Spots
There’s been a few times when I’ve forgotten about my blind spots and nearly caused a collision. I recall two occasions, on a dual carriage way and motorway where I checked my mirrors and saw no other vehicles, then proceeded to change lanes. Both times I nearly drove into a car, putting me on the receiving end of panicked car horns and very angry drivers.
Because of the van’s height smaller cars may creep into a blind spot under the view of the side mirror. Ensure your mirrors are adjusted to give you the maximum view possible, when changing lanes indicate early and turn gradually. Leaning forward and checking the mirror also gives you another perspective.
5. Ask for Help with Manoeuvres
Most people (including myself) find it difficult to parallel park in a car never mind a van. In my experience manoeuvring and parking in a van is more difficult than in a car.
Simple tip, take your time with manoeuvres and don’t be afraid to ask another crew member to help guide you.
On a shoot in the countryside, I had to park the van on a small drive on a very narrow road that was next to a ditch. When it was time to get out two other guys from the crew had to help guide me through a 37-point turn. Don’t risk doing difficult manoeuvres alone.
6. Watch Your Load
When driving a van, it’s important to always think about the load you are transporting. This should affect how you drive the van, if the back is full, then drive as gently as possible, turn corners more gradually and slow down even more on speed bumps. You don’t want anything to get damaged or to tip the van over by handbrake turning round a corner (even if the back is empty, don’t try that).
When loading a van, you need to consider the distribution of weight. Make sure the weight of the load on both sides of the van is approximately equal, this is to avoid the van leaning or tipping and makes it easier to control when driving.
On an indie short I worked on, production hired a man and a van to transport some lighting equipment to the next location. The driver did not distribute the weight and was stopped by the police and fined, also the shoot was delayed.
7. Take Your Time
If you’ve never driven a van before, the last thing you want is to be in a rush. It’s a good idea to give yourself extra travel time so you can focus on driving rather than worrying about a call time.
To avoid accidents or damage, it’s best to drive a van at a considered pace; accelerating and braking gradually, turning slowly and always being aware of other vehicles.
8. Bring a Portable Phone Charger
Thanks to smartphones, gone are the days when most people understood road names and could get from A-B without a sat nav. Navigating with your phone will avoid getting lost on unfamiliar routes, but you’re in trouble if the battery dies.
Most modern vans have a USB socket allowing you to charge your phone, however it’s best to have a portable charger in case.
One time on a night shoot, I was sent to pick up some equipment from a storage unit. On my way back to the location, my phone battery died and I had no way to charge it. I ended up getting lost and delayed the shoot, the producer was not happy.
9. Accidents Happen
Unfortunately, sometimes accidents happen. Scratches and dents on a van can be difficult to avoid when you find yourself in tight spaces.
While working on a feature, I managed to make a huge dent in the lighting van after getting it pinned round a corner.
To say I was nervous about telling the production manager is an understatement. Being charged for the damage and never working in the industry again were among the many scenarios that went through my mind.
In the event of damaging a vehicle you should inform your production manager or supervising crew member at the earliest opportunity. For production and insurance purposes, you will need to fill out an incident report with details on how the damage occurred.
Production will usually have a contingency budget to cover incidents such as this, so it isn’t the end of the world or your career. A lot of the crew had their own stories to tell about accidents they’ve had in the past, so do your best to avoid it but if it happens, it’s not the end of the world.
If you feel intimidated the first time you drive a van, just remember, fundamentally it’s not that different to driving a car, as with anything, it gets easier with experience. However, while you’re still getting used it, be prepared for the possibility of making mistakes and annoying other drivers, especially in the city.
If you’re having trouble with a turn or manoeuvre, finding yourself in the wrong lane or accidentally cutting someone off, you might get frustrated or trigger another driver’s road rage. As a first time van driver these things will happen, but don’t let these situations break your concentration or panic you, it’s always best to keep calm and relax.
Curtis is a recent film graduate from Greenwich University in London. He has worked as a runner, camera assistant and spark on various TV shows and feature films. One day he hopes to direct his own feature films.