white van - The risks and penalties of overloading a van

The risks and penalties of overloading a van

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Overloading a vehicle beyond its maximum permitted limit is an illegal offence. It’s also potentially dangerous for both the driver and other road users, so the legal consequences for both drivers and operators can be serious and far-reaching.

There’s a lot to consider, though. Weight limits don’t just apply to the total vehicle payload. Each axle has its own weight limit, too, so you’ll need to do some careful calculations to ensure you’re not exceeding either the axle weight limit or the total limit for the type of vehicle you’re driving. On top of all this, you must ensure the load is accurately distributed.

It’s easy to see how mistakes could be made, so what are the risks of overloading a van and what penalties could you face?

What are the risks of an overloaded van?

We’ll be talking about vans in this article, but weight limits don’t just apply to commercial vehicles. In fact, maximum payloads apply to every type of vehicle – vans and lorries, cars and other passenger vehicles such as buses – and broadly speaking they share the same dangers and consequences, too.

Safety risks

An overloaded vehicle, or a payload that isn’t distributed correctly over the axles, behaves much differently on the road.

  • The extra weight or uneven distribution of the load means you’ll need longer braking distances
  • Steering is heavier, giving you less control
  • The vehicle is slower to react in an emergency
  • Excess weight on the tyres increases instability and steering problems

In short, taking evasive action is more difficult, increasing the risk of being involved in an accident, injury or death for you or other road users.

Other impacts

There are many other reasons to avoid an overloaded vehicle:

  • Extra weight leads to heavier fuel consumption, increasing a vehicle’s running costs
  • More wear and tear on the engine, and a shorter vehicle life-span
  • Extra strain on the suspension, tyres, brakes and engine increase a vehicle’s maintenance costs
  • Costs can arise from having to repair a vehicle following an accident
  • Delayed or missed deliveries mean lost revenue to a business until the vehicle is released (also at a cost)
  • Fines, penalty notices, or prosecutions arising from roadside stops and inspections
  • An overloaded vehicle invalidates an insurance policy, incurring all sorts of legal problems
  • Damage to a company’s reputation
  • Roads and bridges have to be repaired at tax-payers’ expense, as they break down under the weight.

What are the penalties for an overloaded van?

Police have the power to stop and inspect a commercial vehicle at any time to check that it’s not overloaded. They can also check that axle weight limits aren’t being exceeded and that payload distribution is acceptable. Failing any of these checks can result in a range of penalties, including:

A fixed penalty notice

The amount can vary depending on how overloaded your van is, for example:

Overloaded by… Fine or penalty
Less than 10% £100
Between 10% and 14% £200
Between 15% and 30% £300
Over 30% Probably court summons

Immobilizing the vehicle until the excess weight is removed

For safety reasons, you won’t be able to continue your journey in an overloaded vehicle. This could have both financial and reputational repercussions to your business. Your car, van or lorry will be immobilized until the excess weight has been removed, or the payload redistributed to the inspector’s satisfaction, and then you’ll have to pay (currently £80) for the vehicle to be released.

Fines of up to £5,000

Legislation permits fines of up to £5,000 to be imposed for each offence of overloading. That could mean a fine for each overloaded axle, PLUS another fine for any overloading on the total weight.

Refusing to allow a vehicle to be weighed, or obstructing an officer in the attempt, could also result in a £5,000 fine.

Police cautions or prosecutions

Both the driver and the operator could be cautioned, incur penalty points or prosecuted for an overloaded vehicle.

In more serious cases, a prosecution could be brought for Dangerous Driving under the Road Traffic Act 1988, which carries a prison sentence of up to two years if found guilty.

If an overloaded vehicle results in a death, the driver or operator could also be prosecuted for Manslaughter or Death by Dangerous Driving, leading to a much longer prison sentence and unlimited fines.

Losing your Goods Operator Licence

An overloaded vehicle breaks the terms of a Goods Operator’s Licence, which means there’s a risk of it being taken away, restricted, suspended or not renewed.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure a vehicle isn’t overloaded?

Anyone who has any part in operating, loading, reloading or driving a vehicle has a responsibility to ensure that it is not overloaded. The legal penalties arising from overloading can be applied to any single person in this chain, as well as multiple people.

Drivers and operators may not even be aware the van is overloaded, but that is not a sufficient excuse to escape legal and moral responsibility.

Several pieces of legislation can be brought to bear:

  • The Health & Safety at Work Act 1999, which places responsibility on employers to carry out risk assessments and have adequate policies and procedures in place to ensure a vehicle is within the legal weight limit and thus, ensure the safety of the drivers who work for them.
  • The Road Traffic Act 1988, which places responsibility on the vehicle “user”, i.e. the driver, to make sure the vehicle is not overloaded
  • The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. This implicates anyone who loads or adjusts a load. The regulations require that:

    “…all parts and accessories and the weight distribution, packing and adjustment of their loads shall be such that no danger is likely to be caused to any person in or on the vehicle or trailer or on the road.”

    Additionally, the regulations say,

“no motor vehicle or trailer must be used for any purpose for which it is unsuited as to cause or be likely to cause danger or nuisance to any person.”

How to find out the maximum weight a vehicle can legally carry

You’ll need two basic pieces of information:

  1. The vehicle’s unladen weight (also called its kerb weight), i.e. the weight of the vehicle without any goods, passengers, fuel or other items, such as personal possessions.
  2. The Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW), i.e. the weight of the vehicle and trailer (if there is one) including the maximum load that can be carried safely when it’s being driven on the road.

You can usually find both pieces of information in the owner’s manual or on the vehicle’s chassis plate on one of the door sills.

The Government has also published a simple guide to the different types of goods vehicles and their Gross Vehicle Weights (GVW), i.e. the maximum permitted weight of the vehicle plus its load, which is a very useful read. This divides vehicles into four basic types:

Type of Vehicle Number of Axles Maximum GVW (tonnes)
Smaller 2-axle Heavy Goods Vehicles 2 3.5
Smaller 2-axle Heavy Goods Vehicles 2 Over 3.5 up to 7.5
Bigger 2-axle Heavy Goods Vehicles 2 Over 7.5 up to 18
Multi-axle Heavy Goods Vehicles 3,4,5 or 6 25 to 44

The simple calculation to find out the maximum weight a vehicle can carry is: Gross Vehicle Weight minus Unladen Weight.

How to tell if your van is overloaded

The most accurate way to measure your vehicle’s weight is by a weighbridge; however, many companies with smaller fleets won’t have their own.

Finding your nearest weighbridge

The government offers this handy weighbridge locator tool which uses your postcode to generate a list of weighbridges local to you.

In practice, most vans and lorries won’t travel to a weighbridge before every journey – it’s just not practical. So good judgement and common sense are essential, as is an effective procedure for calculating the weight of the goods you’re planning to carry (not forgetting to add on the weight of passengers, fuel, other items etc.).

Do you have the correct driving licence for your vehicle’s weight?

To avoid unintentionally breaking the law, it may be prudent for younger drivers to check that they have the correct licence to drive heavier vehicles. After 1 January 1997, drivers passing their test are only entitled to drive a van weighing less than 3,500kg fully loaded.

Drivers should apply to take a different driving test if they plan to drive heavier vans. Exceeding this weight means they are not properly qualified to drive the vehicle. Penalties include invalidating their licence and insurance

Tips for loading your van safely

  • Most importantly, know your vehicle’s payload capacities
  • Take the right steps to calculate the total payload of the vehicle, including goods, driver, passengers and any other items
  • Have the correct equipment to secure the load and use proper anchorage points. Check restraints regularly to ensure the load is stable
  • Distribute the load to ensure you don’t exceed the maximum legal weight for each axle
  • Rearrange the load after deliveries or collections to make sure the load remains evenly distributed



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