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...
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.