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Van aids tired, thirsty, stranded motorists

It may be the single most recognizable vehicle on Hillsborough County's roads. And if you have a flat tire or an empty gas tank, it may be the most welcome vehicle you can imagine.

For the past 29 years, the Bill Currie Courtesy Van has been cruising the streets of Tampa and the surrounding areas seeking out motorists in distress.

"It's so much fun," said Steve Nicholson, the van's driver. "The best thing is when I pull up behind someone who is just starting to realize he needs help, and he turns around and there I am."

Nicholson is the only driver of the van these days, and only the fourth driver the van has ever had.

He works some strange hours. Weekdays, he's on the road for morning rush hour, then home from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then back at work for evening rush hour. Evenings and weekends, he goes anywhere there's likely to be a whole lot of traffic. He's at every Bucs and Lightning game, and he rides in the Gasparilla parade.

It's not for everyone, but Nicholson said he kind of likes working the erratic schedule.

"I can come home in the middle of the day and get my errands done or sleep if I have to," he said. "And (my boss) is really good about making sure I don't get burned out."

His main duty, and the one that he likes best, is helping drivers who have broken down along the highway. He doesn't do mechanical work, but he carries gasoline, water and a jack, so he can help drivers get going in a lot of cases. He has a "slim jim" to help unlock car doors.

The van also has a heavy-duty bumper, so Nicholson can push a vehicle out of traffic lanes when he has to.

The van is geared so that it accelerates rapidly from zero to 50, making it safer to get from the highway shoulder into the flow of interstate traffic.

The duties of the van driver have changed over the years, and these days the van's most important piece of equipment is a cell phone. Drivers can call work to say they'll be late or call friends or spouses to come get them.

Behind the front seat is a cooler full of soft drinks and water. Often, in the summer, that's what stranded motorists need most. They may have already called AAA, but if their motor isn't running, their air conditioner isn't either.

Nicholson also carries a camera phone that he uses to send still pictures of accident scenes and traffic jams to Bay News 9.

"I'm able to take a picture from the ground level, so it kind of gives you a different perspective than the helicopter," he said.

So essentially, Nicholson and his van are there to help with any kind of local traffic problem.

"We have two rules," said Danny Lewis, director of community relations for Bill Currie Ford. "You never pass up someone who needs help, and you never accept a penny."

Drivers are almost always glad to see him, but sometimes they're a little guarded about accepting his services. Even if they've seen the van around town, they think it's just there to help Bill Currie customers or Ford owners.

Nicholson recalled one woman who kept asking how much each of his services, from helping to fix her car to offering her the use of his cell phone to giving her some cold water, was going to cost her. She just couldn't believe it was all free.

One of Nicholson's predecessors once came across a family that was broken down on the Courtney Campbell Causeway on their way to Tampa International Airport. The driver took the mother and daughter, who were close to missing their flight to Europe, to the airport, then came back and helped the father get his car running so he could get back home.

Another time Nicholson, who was riding in the Gasparilla parade, saw an elderly spectator who had collapsed from the heat. Nicholson gave him cold water and comforted him until medical help could weave its way through the crowd.

"The paramedics said it really made a difference," he said.

It's not just motorists who benefit from the van. He'll bring drinks, or sometimes even food, to police officers and firefighters who are working out in the heat. When a condominium and the post office burned down in Ybor City a few years back, Bill Currie Ford supplied more than $100 worth of bottled water to firefighters.

"When a police officer is at an accident scene or a crime scene, he can't just walk away and take a break," said Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin. "Seeing the Bill Currie Courtesy Van there to help makes a tremendous difference to the rank-and-file officers."

The van is an expensive proposition for Bill Currie Ford. The service costs about $80,000 a year. They look at the van as "customer service for the entire community," Nichols said.

The costs may be why no other dealership in the country has a similar service, as far as Bill Currie officials know. Several other local dealerships started their own courtesy vans years ago, but they all dropped the service before long.

But the price isn't high considering the return, Lewis said, even ignoring the altruistic pleasure the company takes in the service.

The courtesy van, he said, makes good business sense. The $80,000 pays for a rolling billboard seen by millions of people, and personal contact with thousands of people.

"We had a man who came in to buy a car, and he said his mother had been helped by the courtesy van," Lewis said. "He told us, "My mother always told me that if I ever bought a new car, to be sure I bought it from Bill Currie.'

"The van has become a centerpiece of our community relations. But still, that's nothing compared to being able to help someone who's broken down and frightened."