Know your enemies, know your limits: cyclists and HGVs in London


Cycling in London is not a dangerous activity. Contrary to popular belief not all drivers are trying to run us off the road, and not all cyclists are jumping red lights, mowing down pedestrians and flicking the finger at driver. As I’ve discussed here before, cycling is as safe as walking in Central London – I came to this conclusion using data that the media was using to portray riding a bike as being akin to chewing depleted plutonium...

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But , as in everything in life, there are dangers involved in cycling, and we should do our best to address the source of these dangers and limit our exposure to risk – especially if that risk is avoidable. In my opinion, the biggest threat we face on the road are not car drivers but Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs). In 2004 twenty two cyclists were killed in the UK in collisions with HGVs. Last year alone in London, of the 13 cyclists who died on our roads nine were killed by HGVs – of those nine, eight were women. In total, HGVs account for about 45% of all London cyclist’s death, but account for just 5% of traffic. The British Medical Journal, in their 1994 paper ‘Death of Cyclists in London’ said “the risk of heavy goods vehicles being involved in accidents in which cyclists die in inner London can be estimated at five times that of buses, 14 times that of light goods vehicles, and 30 times that of cars.” Clearly, this is not acceptable. Cyclists; know your enemies.

I thought it was common knowledge amongst all London cyclists that to ride down the inside of an HGV (or a large truck or bus for that matter) is an invitation for disaster, but last week alone I saw two cyclists doing just that. Cyclists are vocal and organised in calling for their full rights on the road, and the first to point out poor driving by others - and rightly so - and yet as the stakeholders who will always invariably come off worse in any road traffic accident, we must be pro-active in recognising that our own behaviour is the first line of defence we have with which to protect ourselves. Cyclists; know your limits.

We can spend thousands of pounds on driver training and complementary safety measures on our roads, but if cyclists put themselves willingly in positions of danger, there’s very little that anyone can do about it. We need to look out for ourselves, before we ask others to look out for us.

This video from the Metropolitan Police, was produced in association with Transport for London as part of their ‘Exchanging Places’ program which gave cyclists the opportunity to sit in an articulated lorry cab and see the driver’s point of view.  Whilst a little dry, I think this video is excellent in demonstrating what the lorry driver can't see – it’s worth noting that the lorry used in the film has every conceivable type of mirror attached – far more than many HGVs (especially those operated by smaller operators) actually do.

Of course, I am absolutely against any idea of blaming the victim – many of the cyclists who have died as a consequence of HGV collisions have been accomplished cyclists acting within the law or following the cycle paths put down on the road for them (many left curb approaches to Advanced Stop Lines encourage riders to go up the inside of traffic to reach the traffic lights). Indeed, 7 London cycle couriers have died as a consequence of collisions with HGVs and lorries and it’s arguable that they are the most knowledgeable cyclists on our roads. Not all HGVs have as many mirrors fitted as the truck in the film. Even if they did there is no guarantee that the driver is looking in those mirrors as you pass by. The simple fact is this; cyclists and large vehicles sharing the same piece of road is a source of conflict – sometimes with awful consequences.

Meryem Ozekman was 37 when she was crushed to death by a lorry on the Elephant and Castle roundabout in 2009.

There is a growing awareness of this problem amongst the authorities and some measures are being brought in to try and combat the issue – there will soon be a trial allowing cyclists to turn left on red lights, thus allowing them to get ahead of the danger posed at junctions, and new trixi mirrors will be installed at junctions along the London Cycle Superhighways, allowing large vehicles to see fully down the side of their vehicles. But more can, and must, be done.

If large vehicles are going to be allowed into city centres where a large volume of pedestrians and cyclists are inevitable, standards for HGV drivers and the state of their vehicles must be improved.

The Met Police Commercial Vehicle Education Unit was set up to tackle shoddy safety standards amongst hauliers – of the 3000+ lorries it has pulled over and assessed on London’s roads since 2005, a massive 70% have been found to have illegal defects. Sadly, our Mayor Boris Johnson is scrapping this scheme – it’s duties will apparently be absorbed by the traffic Police (whose numbers have also been cut by 20% in recent years) and covered by a voluntary traffic safety scheme that hauliers are under no obligation to join. This is the same Mayor who was almost taken out whilst cycling by a truck whose rear doors were held shut with a wire coat hanger...



More must be done at higher levels to incentivise haulage firms to prioritise safety over the speed of their next delivery. The Crown Prosecution Service must bring the highest charges if a driver is proven to be at fault, unlike in the case of cyclist Anthony Maynard, who was run over from behind in 2008 by a van driver who claimed in his defence that he didn't see Anthony cycling – this was excuse enough for no charges to be brought against the driver. More recently, the tragic death of 30 year old Eilidh Cairns has made the headlines; she was crushed to death on a road that the inquest into her death deemed too narrow to pass on. The inquest also found that if the driver had adjusted his mirrors correctly, he would have been able to see Eilidh clearly. The point in the road at which the accident happened was just 2 metres wide – the driver’s vehicle was 2.5 metres, raising the question of why he was on that particular road in the first place. A verdict of accidental death was delivered.

Ms Cairns's sister Kate said “The one thing we didn't want was an accidental verdict. We agree it was not intentional but we believed it was avoidable. People in power act as though these accidents just unfortunately happen to female cyclists and people have to deal with it. There is a huge problem with female cyclists being on the streets of London with HGVs and politicians are not doing enough to address that.

“These cyclists are not soldiers going into battle. They are just women going to work and nobody is doing anything to stop this needless slaughter.”

Eilidh’s family and friends have been instrumental in increasing awareness of the issues surrounding HGVs on our streets – they have been able to have an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament calling for MPs to consider the law as it currently stands and what could be done in the future to stop the deaths: an essential first step in having this vital issue discussed at a higher level. At present 47 Members for Parliament support it, but it needs more signatures - write to your MP using an easy online form here and ensure they are fully aware of how important this issue is and ask them to add their support to EDM 600, which can be found here.

Last word goes to Kate Cairns, Eilid’s sister: ”We need to address the source of the danger. Policies of protection are not enough. I think we should be considering future lorry design, how compatible they are with our streets and the way the fleets are managed. By supporting this EDM MPs are working towards finding a real solution. It makes sense when all benefits are taken into account”

If you are a London cyclist and have ever wobbled slightly as the enormous wheels of an HGV pass you by, my advice to you would be two things: help protect others by urging your MP to support this motion, and help yourself by staying back in the traffic at junctions when there is a lorry ahead of you – no one is ever in that much of a rush that they need put themselves in unnecessary danger.

10 comments:

thereverent said...

Great blog post.

There seems to be a lot of putting cyclists in drivers cabs (which is useful) but almost no reverse situations of getting drivers to cycle in central London. Maybe instead of watching a safety video about speeding to avoid points on their licence the police should take drivers out on bikes round London. That way they would get some appreciation of what its like from our side.

I'd like to know out of the serious cyclist/HGV accidents at junctions in London, in how many cases was the HGV in the ASL.

ASLs are almost always ignored by motor vehicles, and never enforced by the Police. Examples from last week:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mETdmKiPZgU

As you point out the design of a lot of London’s cycle lanes encourages a rider to stick to the left curb. Its with experience you learn when it best to hang back or overtake.
I think experienced riders could help with this. If I’m on a route with lots of cyclists and there is an HGV at a junction I will sometimes stop just at the back of the HGV blocking anyone from undertaking it if it looks dangerous. This way no-one can get in there.

Mark said...

I agree that it would be great to engage more HGV drivers and get them to come and try cycling around London - some councils (I think Lambeth) have made their drivers do a cycle training course, as seen recently on the Evening Standard (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23796948-cycling-fatalities-are-down-but-more-still-needs-to-be-done-to-save-lives.do) but yeah, there needs to be less blaming the victim and more engaging the perpetrators...

Some people are great at stopping for ASLs, some people (especially a certain well known private hire taxi firm from south London) are DREADFUL - as a cyclist if I get to the ASL ahead of traffic I always stop at the back of it, wait for the traffic behind me to stop, and then roll forwards to improve the distance between me and it. Seems to work most times!

I also agree that experienced riders can do more to help those who are less experienced - as a cycling 'community' in London we should all talk to one another more and not be afraid to say 'you might not want to go down there mate'.

thereverent said...

I had heard of the Lambeth driver training, and meant to mention it in my first post. I wish this was rolled out London-wide.

I think maybe a higher duty of care should be applied for larger vehicles. Too often they forget that cyclist don't disapear when they are past the drivers cab. To often they move or turn left when you are still alongside.
I have problems with bendy-buses doing this as I live close to a route where they run.

Good ASL tatics by the way, I do that as well.

Mark said...

There should, without a doubt, be a higher duty of care onus on larger vehicles - I'm very keen on the European model - cyclists bow to peds, cars bow to cyclists, lorries bow to all, but I think the media and motoring lobby have scuppered any chance of strict liability ever coming in here in the UK.

Of course, there are plenty of laws already in place on the road - in the case of Eilidh, the cyclist who was hit by the lorry driver I understand that she was hit from behind - as I understood it in this country if you hit someone from behind you are automatically 'at fault' but it would seem it's a different set of rules for us cyclists... very sad indeed.

Simo said...

I chap I interviewed for my research work went out with the traffic police. He said he was shocked just how many cars and lorries are caught that have no insurance, bald tyres, bad brakes etc. They are usually foreigners that are outside the system. I am sure these foreign lorry drivers who are driving for 20+ hours without sleep will never be sent on a cyclist awareness course.

If the economic penalties for killing a cyclist were so sever that they would bankrupt a business then maybe we would see significant action my hauliers. When fines are £300 per death then nothing will change.

emeraldsedai said...

Wonderful post, Mark. Though you cite the problem in terms very specific to London, your idea that bicyclists need to understand and work to protect themselves from the most serious dangers they face on the road applies in every cycling environment.

I don't think there's any danger of anyone finding a "blame the victim" tone in what you say here. Everyone on a bike in the city streets is a potential victim, and we can each do more to limit our own risk.

As a woman city bike-rider 5000 miles away, I was profoundly influenced by the finding in London that women were many times more likely than men to be killed in HGV left-turn situations. I took that statistic to heart and it made me a more assertive (not aggressive!), and therefore a safer, more visible cyclist.

All thanks to you and your blog. Keep up the good work.

Mark said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments, when I write about safety and cycling I worry sometimes that it is potentially off-putting and makes cycling seem more dangerous than it really is. But if it helps us all to look after one another and ride more safely then it's all worth while. Your comment has put a big smile on my Friday-afternoon-face!

I totally agree that whilst legislation to protect cyclists is great, and must be forthcoming from our politicians and institutions, the first line of defense that we as cyclists have is the knowledge of the road and common sense that we can arm ourselves with.

Ride safely,

Mark

phil evans said...

I write this with a bit of a dark cloud above, since I know that this will inflame opinions in the cycling community. It is hugely regrettable that so many cyclists are killed on London's roads, but there are good reasons for that not to be the case.

Cyclists in London are fast, thin-profiled and oppurtunist. There's no concept of 'i must wait'. They are low-mass, agile and clever manueverists. So positive so far!

But. There are rules of the road - the highway code - that cyclists MUST adhere to. The law is what it is, for the good (?) of all. Some simple extracts from that guide:

109
Traffic light signals and traffic signs. You MUST obey all traffic light signals (see 'Light signals controlling traffic') and traffic signs giving orders, including temporary signals and signs (see 'Signs giving orders', 'Warning signs', 'Direction signs'). Make sure you know, understand and act on all other traffic and information signs and road markings (see 'Signs giving orders', 'Warning signs', 'Direction signs', 'Information signs', 'Road markings' and 'Vehicle markings').

182
Use your mirrors and give a left-turn signal well before you turn left. Do not overtake just before you turn left and watch out for traffic coming up on your left before you make the turn, especially if driving a large vehicle. Cyclists, motorcyclists and other road users in particular may be hidden from your view.

(by the same note...don't try to under-take a motorist who is turning left)

It would be painful to go on, but ultimately, I find myself as a pedestrian inventing all sorts of ways to compensate for cyclists whilst (legitimately) crossing at pedestrian crossings under a red light. Having my arm broken a couple of years ago by a super-fast courier (who got on his bike and rode off), I can't not voice my opinion.

The rules apply to ALL ROAD USERS. Imagine what we would be dealing with if lorries illustrated the same behaviour at red lights.....carnage.

Apologies if I've upset too many cyclists, but I'm afraid you share the road, not own it.

coops456 said...

Phil, you make some fair points of course; I often cringe to see the behaviour of other road users, with or without engines! Pedestrians cross without looking, cyclists jump red lights, motorists use mobile phones etc etc. None of us are as perfect as we think we are.

But as Mark puts it beautifully above, there's usually someone more vulnerable than you and that's who you should be looking out for. If only HGV drivers were taught that rule...

Marrie said...

You have an awesome write-up Mark. You have a great idea about the need of cyclist to understand how to protect themselves on what they may face on the road. Indeed, it really applies to countries like London.

And nowadays, we cannot do much about road accidents. It may come in times that we're not expecting it.

Thanks for sharing this article. Hope you'll keep it up.

-Marrie
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