Confessions of an HGV driver
How much can you earn? How difficult is it to reverse a trailer and where do you go to the loo? We ask all this and more of our tame HGV driver...
How much does an HGV driver earn? What’s the most challenging thing about driving an HGV? And what most annoys HGV drivers about car drivers?
We visited the truck rest at Chobham services on the M25 to ask a Class 1 driver and veteran of the British Army with nine years’ HGV experience these and other essential questions… As he was speaking in a personal capacity, we are respecting his wish to remain anonymous.
Pictures used are for illustrative purposes and to do not feature people in this story
Let’s face it, many of us have wanted to do your job when we were young, so let’s talk about your truck…. What is it?
I love it. It’s a Mercedes Actros. I don't know what the engine is or the fuel consumption (it gets filled up at the works depot) but I know it’s easy to drive and very comfortable. All the gear changing is done by these two little buttons on the steering column and the handbrake is that stubby little lever sticking out of the centre console.
What truck do you drive? (Cont.)
The wing mirrors are huge and visibility is terrific. It was registered in May 2018 so is still fairly new but even so, it’s already done 84,000 miles. I share it with another driver who works nights. We’re lucky since just the two of us drive this same truck, whereas if you worked for a supermarket delivery company, say, you’d be in a different truck every day and facing a load of mess in the cab and having to check everything on a daily basis.
What truck do you drive? (Cont.)
Editor's note: Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor unit engines range in size from a 7.7-litre 230bhp diesel producing 737lb ft of torque, up to a 15.6-litre 616bhp unit producing 2212lb ft of torque, all with six-cylinders. Depending on loads, conditions and driving styles, efficiency can range from seven to 11 miles-per-gallon.
Fuel-tank size varies but is usually in the region of 400 litres, nearly 10 times the size of the tank in a Ford Fiesta. As such, at current prices, filling one up costs £520. The Actros features a 12-speed automated gearbox.
Most of our readers are car drivers, not truckers. What most annoys you about us car drivers?
First, lane hoggers. Trucks can’t use the outside lane on a motorway, which means that if there’s a slow-moving car in the middle lane, we have nowhere to go unless we undertake, which is dangerous as well as illegal. The other thing is drivers who don't give us space at roundabouts. Sometimes you need to use both lanes to get a big artic around a roundabout but they come up on the inside and risk getting wiped out!
Why do you drive an HGV?
I just love driving. You have to love your job to do it well, right? Also, I’m quite a solitary person so it suits me (I am married with a family, so not a total oddball!) but I like meeting my customers, too.
How much do you earn as a salaried HGV driver?
Around £31,000 a year but I could earn up to £38,000 if I did more shift work, including nights. Instead, I just work weekdays, 6.00am to 5.30pm. You can boost your earnings with specialist training allowing you to, for example, transport hazardous materials, known as HazMat. I’m a HazMat driver.
6.00-am to 5.30pm – that sounds like a lot of driving…
It would be if all those hours were spent at the wheel but that would be illegal. A driver of a goods vehicle weighing more than 3.5 tonnes (my truck is 44 tonnes fully laden) is permitted to drive only nine hours a day, split into two sessions of four and a half hours, separated by a 45-minute break. I’m also allowed to drive 10 hours a day, separated by a break, twice a week. There are more rules governing breaks and daily rest periods, too, but they’re complicated which is where the CPC course is a help.
Who or what keeps track of how many hours you drive?
The truck’s onboard tachograph. It’s the equivalent of an aircraft’s black box. I put my unique ID card into it and it records the number of hours I drive. Every 28 days my employer must download the data to check I’ve not broken the rules. They and me will be fined if I do.
What personal qualities do you need for your job?
Much of my work is collecting hazardous materials (chemicals and so on). It’s responsible work and to do it properly you have to be organized, meticulous and safety conscious. You also have to be self-motivated, too, since most of the time you’re on your own, organising your day and making sure the work gets done.
What do you look for in a good employer?
That they pay decent money, of course, but also that they give you a good truck and that the bosses understand what you do and the challenges you face every day so they don't demand the impossible. You also want some respect for doing the job well, too. There are always idiots in any job but you have to roll with it.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
People think reversing an articulated lorry around a corner must be difficult but that just takes practise. Much worse, is being stuck in traffic going nowhere with the tachograph ticking. Just as bad is going to a new place where the customer has absolutely no idea about the size of your truck and whether they have the space to accommodate it.
What’s the worst thing about your job? (Cont.)
Sometimes, you take one look and just have to say ‘No way, mate. I can’t get the truck in there.’ Another thing is a customer who doesn't understand that when that truck is loaded, it becomes the driver’s responsibility so you have to be really picky about the condition of pallets, how well loads fit and how secure they are. Again, you have to have some tough conversations with customers. My army background helps at times like these (I’m still a reservist).
Where do you go for a toilet break?
Unfortunately (or fortunately) there’s no loo in a truck cab. That’s not a problem for me because I always use the services. However, there are some drivers who stop at them but still go in the bushes! I know some lay-bys that really smell, too.
Why do some trucks go faster than others?
The maximum permitted speed of a truck weighing over 7.5 tonnes laden is 60mph on a motorway. However, if you were to drive at that, you’d have no margin if, for example, you were going downhill when the truck would naturally speed up and go over the limit. So, via the tachograph, operators set their own maximum speed – 56mph, typically.
But some, such as the supermarkets, are lower still; around 52mph. If I exceed my company’s 56mph limit, the tacho sounds an audible warning. If I ignore it, it records an overspeed notice which my bosses will see when the tacho is checked each month. If I make a habit of it, I’ll be fired.
What do you think of smart motorways?
Once they’re finished and the cones have gone, they’re great. There’s so much more space for everyone and there are more options for lorry drivers to keep moving.
What are your favourites routes?
The M4 west of Reading is nice and quiet, except when you get to Bristol and the M5. The M40’s pretty free-flowing, too. It’s just before Christmas that things get busy and the lorry parks are full at the services. That can be tough.
What do you need to be a Class 1 HGV driver?
First, you need a full driving licence and an HGV Class 2 (also known as Category C) licence allowing you to drive a truck weighing more than 3500kg with a trailer whose maximum authorised mass (MAM) is no more than 750kg. I’m fortunate because I got my Class 2 licence in the army.
Having got your Class 2, you can now get your Class 1 (also called a C+E) licence. This allows you to drive a Cat C vehicle with a trailer having a MAM of more than 750kg. Expect to pay around £1400 for a five-day course including the practical test (you’ll have already taken the theory test when you did your Class 2).
Is anything else required?
You’ll also need a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC). The course covers things like loading safety, driver hours regulations and personal administration and you can't work without one. New licence holders need the Initial Driver CPC qualification, which costs around £375. Once you’re working, you need to undergo periodic testing; a total of 35 hours over five years, which you may have to pay for or your employer will.
So with Class 1 licence in hand, you can walk into an HGV driving job?
Few operators will accept a young or inexperienced driver. Insuring them is a big issue plus there’s much more to driving an HGV than passing the test, which is where experience comes in. Having an army background helps persuade employers to take you on earlier but most novice drivers start by working for an agency for two or three years.
It’s tough: you’re self-employed and the hours are irregular. There’s no holiday pay and no pension, but it’s a start and it’s the only way to get experience and prove yourself.