Everything you need to know about driving a van
From which vans require a special driving licence to how fast you can go on the motorway, we answer every question around driving a commercial vehicle...
Van sales have boomed since the Covid-19 pandemic and there and there are now almost five million on our roads. That means around one in six vehicles is classed as a van.
However, owning and running a van, especially for business, is not the same as running a car; there are different rules and regulations to follow, many of which will attract harsh punishments if broken.
Read on and we'll outline what defines a van and the crucial rules you must follow if you drive one, and we'll tackle some of the crucial questions about owning and running one so you can stay out of trouble.
What is a van?
The definition of a van varies widely, but in its most basic form it describes a vehicle that transports people or goods. It can be covered (usually by a roof and an enclosed rear) or open, such as found on chassis-cab tipper vans.
Vans can range in size from tiny microvans, such as the Citroen Ami Cargo, to large, heavy-duty vans such as the Ford Transit or Volkswagen Crafter.
Is a van categorised differently to a car?
Yes, a van runs to separate regulations, including licensing, insurance and speed limits.
A vehicle is identified as a van in its logbook, or by checking its Vehicle Identification Number [VIN]. See below for more details on how to find the VIN.
However, there are also car-derived vans, which are defined as being based on car underpinnings but have been adapted to carry loads, usually including the blocking of the rear windows. Again, these run to their own regulations.
It is important you know if your vehicle is defined as a van or car because vans are subject to different regulations, including licence requirements, insurance rules and speed limits.
Our pick of the car-derived vans on sale at the moment is the Toyota Corolla Commercial, which picked up a trophy at our most recent Van and Commercial Vehicle Awards.
Is van short for anything?
The word van is derived from caravan, and the first recorded uses of the word dates back to the 1800s, when referring to as an enclosed carriage for moving goods. If you are looking for advice on campervans or motorhomes, we have an entire lifestyle van section dedicated to those vehicles.
What licence do I need to drive a van?
A standard driving licence covers you to drive any van with a design gross weight (this is defined below) up to 3500kg.
Some driving licences will cover you to drive heavier vans; you should check your licence to get clarification. Driving without holding the right licence can result in a fine of up to £1000 and three to six penalty points.
If you passed your driving test after January 1, 1997 you will almost certainly need to take additional tests to drive vans between 3500kg and 7500kg, or to tow a trailer with your van.
What’s my van’s maximum weight allowance?
All vans have a maximum weight limit, called its design gross weight, but often known as its gross vehicle weight or laden weight.
Your van’s design gross weight usually stamped into its vehicle identification number (VIN) plate.
A VIN plate's location varies from vehicle to vehicle, but common areas for it to be mounted include the engine bay, beneath the plastic trim surrounding the driver or passenger door opening, or in the bottom corner of the dash where it connects with the windscreen.
The design gross weight is calculated including the weight of the van, driver and passengers, fuel and load.
Exceeding the design gross weight impairs the performance of your van and can lead to fines of up to £300.
How to load your van
Vans that don’t have a bulkhead between the driver and passenger compartments and the load area need to be packed carefully.
The driver is responsible for ensuring that all loads are packed or tied down so that they cannot enter the front of the vehicle in the event of an emergency stop or accident.
Van drivers often use netting or straps to secure loads in such cases.
How long can I drive my van for?
How long you can drive a van for work depends on its weight and the country you are driving in.
In the UK the basic rule is that you must take a break after four hours, but the exact requirements are determined by a complex set of rules according to why you are driving.
Where can I load my van on the street?
Van drivers must pay attention to whether any vertical yellow lines are painted on the pavement. If they are, restrictions are in place, usually detailed on a nearby sign.
Increasingly, many streets have bays dedicated to loading and unloading. These are usually time limited and marked by a dotted white line. Restrictions will be shown on a nearby sign.
Does my van need an MOT?
Three years after it was first registered as new, a van needs a valid MOT. A new MOT must then be completed every year.
For the purposes of an MOT, a van is classified as being up to 3000kg design gross weight (class 4, which includes car-based vans) or up to 3500kg design gross weight (class seven)
It is crucial you tell your insurance company if you will use your van for work or social purposes, or both, because this will affect your cover.
Van speed limits
Vans are typically subject to lower speed limits than cars and car-based vans.
For instance, on a single carriageway road where a car or car-based van can travel at 60mph, a van is limited to 50mph. Likewise, on a dual-carriageway, a car or car-based van has a speed limit of 70mph, but a car or van towing a trailer 60mph.
A van can do 70mph on a motorway, but a van towing a trailer is limited to 60mph.
Can I tow with a van?
Towing with a van brings additional restrictions, potentially including the licence you must hold and the speeds you are limited to.
Towing with a van also affects the numbers of hours you can legally drive for work and may require you to have a tachograph installed to record the hours you drive.
What laws must I know if I supply a work van?
Employers and self-employed drivers must complete a risk assessment – and take appropriate precautions – prior to driving a van for any work activity.
The employer or self-employee must ensure the van is safe to drive and that any drivers are suitably trained, aware of road traffic laws and always follow the Highway Code.
Transporting goods in Europe in a van
Everyone, including sole operators, now need a goods vehicle operator licence and a transport manager to move goods in vans in Europe.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here
Read more: See the winners of our Van and Commercial Vehicle Awards 2023 >>
Best pick-up trucks 2023
The best pick-up trucks are tough and dependable working vehicles that can serve as practical family cars at the weekend. These are the best pick-ups available in the UK (plus one electric model)
Toyota Yaris Cross long-term test
The Toyota Yaris Cross is the most efficient car we've ever tested, but now our car reviewer is finding out if there's more to this small SUV than just thrifty motoring