Renault Master White Van Man Study
Ever since the term "White Van Man" was coined in 1997, by Sarah Kennedy on Radio 2, van drivers have taken on the mantle of what sociologists refer to as 'folk devils'. Overtaking even the football hooligan in the league table of social undesirability, WVM is now most often viewed as a mobile thug – a dangerous threat to the decent, right-thinking, motoring majority.
In the media, WVM is variously described as "aggressive", "tattooed", and a "tailgater". He is the "white male" and a "mad bastard" who "never signals", "cuts up" other drivers and uses the kind of vocabulary that has to be represented by asterisks in newspapers. So friendless has he become that those specialists in populist opportunism, the New Labour Government, have felt obliged to contribute to his public censure. The Minister of Transport, John Prescott, has made it clear that WVM's days are numbered.
Images of this kind, however, are not always founded upon facts, and false stereotypes are not only unjust, they can be dangerous. Recently, for example, an acquaintance, who is a senior executive in a multinational company, remarked that when confronted with WVM he always tried to get his "retaliation in first". Such tendencies do little to improve road safety, and even less to encourage better habits among those van drivers perceived to be in need of them.
So who is WVM, and what is he, or perhaps even she, like? Does he deserve the opprobrium which is routinely heaped upon him? Or is the average WVM being made to suffer for the activities of a small minority of maniacs and 'dodgy geezers'?
Our task at the Social Issues Research Centre, as in all of our work, has been to put aside received wisdoms and the 'everybody knows' conclusions and to take a dispassionate look. To do this we had, inevitably, to take the to the road and track WVM down in his natural habitat – the filling stations, industrial estates, lay-bys, 'caffs' and motorway service areas that lend definition to Britain's social geography. And what better way to travel and establish rapport with our subjects than in a white van ourselves?
How old is WVM?
Drivers in our sample ranged in age from 18 to 73 years. The average age was 37, and the majority of drivers were in their 30s or 40s.
Are all white van drivers men?
No, but women are in a distinct minority – less than 4% of drivers are female.
Is WVM a single guy?
No – two thirds of drivers are married. Single drivers account for only 24%, and a further 10% are divorcees.
Where does WVM go?
The majority of drivers (around 75%) do not stray too far from home. Most of their business is local and in urban environments. WVM is really a 'townie', and he often knows the local roads and streets better than some taxi drivers. This gives him a sense of 'territory' – in traffic he is on his own 'turf'. And like other species of animal, he feels most confident in these conditions. So, a note of caution. When you obstruct the passage of a white van you are often preventing the driver travelling freely on what he perceives to be his road.
Is driving a van all he does?
No – for the majority of drivers the van is a 'tool of the trade'. Fleet and courier vans account for only about 22% of all vans on the road. The typical driver may be a service engineer, a fishmonger, a roofer, an exhibitions erector, a picture framer or even a theatre director. Many are also self-employed (26%), and the van that they drive is one crucial element of their business.
What does WVM listen to when he's driving?
There are some drivers who listen to, and even sing along with, tapes of opera or tune to Classic FM. The vast majority, however, listen to the independent local radio stations. We've seen that WVM spends most of his time in his local area. His choice of programme is his way of keeping in touch with his home turf. And the traffic news comes in handy as well.
Can he read?
Of course he can. His choice of newspaper is mostly one of the tabloids – perhaps because the broadsheets are less easy to cope with in the cab or at the table of a roadside café. Around 50% of drivers read one or more magazines regularly. These are sometimes related to their work (The Grocer and other trade publications) but more often linked to their hobbies.
What does WVM do at the weekends?
He plays football, despite his advancing years. He goes to speedway or motor sport events. He scuba dives, walks to keep fit, writes songs, tends his garden and goes fishing. WVM is an active chap and his varied interests and hobbies provide a contrast with his often rather routine working week. He doesn't go to the pub very much, although the younger drivers may sometimes be found in night clubs. But his weekend activities are usually social ones, again making a contrast with his often fairly solitary profession.
What does he watch on TV?
Everything, from Channel 4 to Sky Movies. There is nothing in the data on viewing habits that distinguishes WVM from the rest of the population, except 40% have satellite dishes. Choice of films is similarly eclectic, ranging from soft porn to documentaries about animal life. The majority, however, opt for 'action' movies or comedy.
Where does WVM go on holiday?
You'll find him mostly on a beach in Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Malta, Majorca or Lanzarote. But you will also see him towing a caravan in Devon, relaxing in the Caribbean, sailing off the Isle of Wight and cruising down the Nile in Egypt.
What does he eat?
WVM's diet when on the road is usually one which would prompt a long lecture from nutritionists. His breakfast, when he has that luxury, would be described as a 'heart attack on a plate' – the tempting, high-cholesterol combination that only a genuine British 'greasy spoon' can deliver properly. Lunch is most often eaten in the cab and consists of sandwiches from a Shell garage or one of the many items that constitute the class of 'junk food'. And in many vans you will see on the dashboard that essential piece of equipment for mobile snacking – the Coke can holder.
As with most other aspects of WVM, however, there are notable exceptions. Drivers whose rounds include deliveries to pubs and restaurants often eat well on their customers' premises. Others bring elaborately prepared lunch boxes from home, which may include seemingly atypical items such as salad and fresh fruit. There are also a few (about 6%) who recognise the attendant health risks of their sedentary and stressful profession and consume only things which have 'healthy' or 'low-fat' labels.
When he's not driving, WVM's diet changes radically. In the evenings and at weekends he returns to typical British cooking – i.e. curries, pizzas and Chinese stir-fry.
Is he a snappy dresser?
Yes and no. Most drivers prefer to wear 'casual' or 'smart casual' clothes in the evenings and at weekends. Many drivers also try to keep up appearances when they are driving. But WVM is no 'designer' addict. He may have the odd 'label' shirt, but his suit is rarely Armani and his watch is more likely to be Seconda than Rolex.
Does WVM keep a Rottweiler?
Only one in our sample – but over a half (57%) do have pets: ponies, Airedales, Siamese cats, Labradors, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, parrots, rabbits and fish. It may surprise some people, but van drivers are often quite gentle folk, and their choice of pets is a clear statement of this aspect of their personality and lifestyle.
Do White Van Men stick together?
When we started our research we had in mind the idea that WVM might be 'tribal' – a member of a distinct social grouping with its own rituals, codes of conduct and distinctive argot. We were disappointed. While WVM may be more accommodating on the road to other van drivers, he doesn't spend much time in their company. Even at the sections of motorway service stations reserved for 'commercial' drivers there is little interaction between them.
The reason for this, in retrospect, is fairly obvious. As we have seen, WVM comes in all sorts of guises. The only thing which really unites them is the fact that they drive vans. And this is not sufficient to establish tribal bonding in itself.
On the other hand, there is a small section of the WVM population which forms a kind of 'inner clique'. These are the 'anoraks' of the van world – the men with CB radios who swap 'vannish' stories with each other and who really need to get a life.
Does WVM have a relationship with his van?
The research reveals four distinct categories in this context. In one category there are those for whom the van is simply a work tool – it is like a computer or an electric drill. You have to have one, and you need to keep it working. But otherwise you have little personal feeling for it.
In another category there are those WVM who positively loathe their vans. These are usually the fleet delivery drivers who often drive a different van every day and couldn't give a cuss whether it has dents in it or not.
The third category comprises those who express something akin to affection when talking about their vans. They emphasise the merits of the particular brand, contrasting it favourably with its competitors, and are prone to interior decoration and embellishment. They like their vans to be clean, but stop short of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.
In the final group, however, are people who are in love with their vans. They give them pet names, treat them like members of the family and may drive them at weekends just for fun. Even a flashing orange light on the roof, for use on motorway work sites, is pointed to with special pride. These are people who should be providing a good income for psychotherapists.
How does WVM rate his own driving?
WVM generally tends to have quite a high opinion of himself – and particularly about his driving skills. Most think that they are careful, courteous drivers – 'steady Eddies' in an unpredictable and dangerous traffic jungle. There is nothing, however, at all surprising about this. Male motorists in general share this tendency to make overly complimentary self-assessments. Our own previous research, for example, has shown that around 75% of men rate themselves as better than average when it comes to driving. To admit that you are a 'bad' driver is not like saying that you cannot master the art of wallpaper hanging. It's a bit like confessing that you are lousy in bed. And WVM is no different in this respect.
WVM also tends to see himself as non-aggressive – a view that many other road users might challenge. At the same time, however, he is no passive wimp. He sees his determination to pull out into the stream of traffic as merely 'assertive' – quite reasonable behaviour, and a tactic which is essential to making any progress at all on congested roads. As a quid pro quo, however, WVM understands that other drivers need to make the same kind of manoeuvres, and will usually accommodate them. Our own, admittedly informal, observations of vehicles in which the drivers engage in 'letting out' at junctions is as follows: Taxis – never; buses – very rarely; female motorists – rarely; male motorists – slightly more frequently; white van drivers – usually.
There are, however, a few van drivers (around 10%) who will confess to the odd motoring misdemeanour. Red traffic lights, for example, are sometimes seen as merely 'advisory'. Exceeding the speed limit, especially in towns, might simply be viewed as a necessary part of the job. And because WVM sees himself as a 'good' driver he may feel entitled to take the occasional overtaking risks which should not be attempted by mere mortals in ordinary cars.
Can he be trained?
Increasingly, WVM is being sent for specialist training in driving skills. At the moment only about 5% of drivers have received advanced instruction, but this is likely to increase, especially among drivers who work for large companies. Interestingly, those drivers who had been sent on such courses did not see this as a patronising waste of time. They were proud of their certificates – testaments to the abilities they always claimed to have, but which were seldom recognised by others. They took their job more seriously and were more likely to distance themselves from other van drivers as a result. [See Recommendations]
Does WVM enjoy having a HOW'S MY DRIVING sticker on the back of his van?
Most don't care, but some hate them, and we have some sympathy with their view. Imagine if we all had to carry such a sticker on the rear of our Vectras, Clios and Jaguar XJ6s, complete with a Freephone number but usually lacking the relevant apostrophe? How many of us would fail to irk some little busybody who has nothing better to do with his life than call up and report our failure to observe every little nicety of the Highway Code?
The stickers, of course, are an American import – reflecting that country's desire for over-regulation of every aspect of public behaviour and the provision of yet more opportunities to make complaints. People who call those Freephone numbers, both in the United States and here in Britain, rarely have anything nice to say because the sticker only invites complaints. [See Recommendations]
What is WVM's attitude to other road users?
Many drivers (nearly half) feel that because they are in a van, other motorists deliberately obstruct them, carve them up or generally behave in an antisocial way towards them. They may get better treatment from lorry drivers, who should have some sympathy for their smaller cousins, but taxi drivers are perceived as a particular menace. In contrast, however, other van drivers feel that the size of their vehicle can intimidate motorists into behaving more deferentially. The relatively high driving position of a typical van also allows WVM to 'stare down' would-be rivals.
The more typical WVM, however, doesn't seem to notice much about what other drivers are doing. His focus is on his own driving and on the speed of progress required to meet his schedule. For him, every car on the road is in his way – a state of affairs with which he is so familiar that he rarely gives it a second thought. Rather than constantly railing against his fellow road users, he more often retreats into a near Zen-like trance of inner contemplation in which the potentially ulcer-generating sources of frustration no longer exist.
What do the emergency services think about White Van Man?
Ambulance and fire appliance drivers have a very high regard for WVM. It is he, more than any other driver, who first notices the flashing lights and sirens and makes room for the vehicles to get through. This is in large part due to WVM's sense of civic duty. It is also the case that the relatively high driving position in vans, coupled with the need to use the large rear-view mirrors quite regularly, mean that van drivers are more likely to spot the approach of the emergency services. It is also the case that vans rarely have those 200 watt sound systems so often found in BMW 3 series, whose thumping bass woofers make even the most strident siren inaudible to the driver.
What does WVM have to say about his media image?
Unsurprisingly, this produced some strong opinions and colourful language. The majority of van drivers, however, gave more considered replies. Roughly a half thought that the image was partly justified. It did not, of course, apply to them personally – they were quite different, but they recognised that other van drivers deserved the criticism.
Others identified particular types of WVM who deserved their media image. These included young drivers, newspaper delivery drivers, 'wide boys' and the 'odd maniac'. Over a third of our sample, however, not only rejected the stereotype completely but provided sociological insights into the origin and function of the media image. Some, for example, pointed to the high visibility of white vans. A bad experience with one WVM was, therefore, generalised to all. It was suggested that simply painting all white vans different colours might put a stop to this process. Others pointed to the need for frustrated motorists to have a 'scapegoat' on which to vent their anger. Again, the 'uniform' nature of the white van provided a clear opportunity.
From our standpoint as social scientists we can see a familiar pattern here. A 'grain of truth' is seized by the media to amplify a minor form of delinquency in order to create a 'moral panic'. The exemplar of the WVM image does exist, but he is much thinner on the ground than we might think. Like his forebears, the Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, Skinheads, football hooligans and punks, he provides an easy way of confirming our own moral (and in this case, motoring) rectitude. If he didn't exist, we would have to invent somebody else. Look out sales reps!
Conclusions and Recommendations.
The Renault Master White Van Man Study has been the first to examine in any detail a social phenomena which has received wide, and largely uninformed, media comment. The results show quite conclusively that although the stereotypical WVM does exist, he constitutes only a tiny fraction of the highly varied population of van drivers.
In a sense, there really is no such animal as White Van Man, in the way that there is no single species of Motorist. There are, however, some issues common to all van drivers, and to members of the public who share the congested highways with them. With this in mind, we conclude with a number of recommendations which may lead to a more harmonious relationship between van drivers and other road users.
- Regulation of schedules for fleet and courier drivers to ensure that these can be completed safely and without excessive speed.
- Incentives for companies to provide advanced driving courses for their employees.
- Commission further, extensive research on specific ways of encouraging better van driving.
- Consider need to attend stress-management and relaxation techniques courses.
- Consider painting white vans a different colour. (That is a serious suggestion)
- Acknowledge every act of courtesy by motorists – e.g. the 'thumbs up' signs that bus drivers are supposed to give as part of the 'let the bus pull out' scheme.
- Volunteer for advanced driving courses.
- Ring Freephone numbers on vans to report every example of courteous driving.
- Recognise the pressures that many van drivers are under and act accordingly.
- Resist the temptation to engage in 'pre-emptive' strikes.
- Hire a white van for a couple of days and see what it is like to be a WVM yourself.