Terrible though they are, these are by no means extraordinary. Indeed, perhaps because the death rate in 2010 looks as though it will be no different to that of years past, action is even more urgently needed.
Collisions with HGVs were the cause of 69% of London’s cyclist deaths last year. In 2008 this figure was 88%. There can be no doubt that lorries are the primary source of cyclist’s deaths in London.
I’ve spent the weekend going over figures from the Metropolitan Police showing the cycling fatalities in London over the 4 years covering 2004-2008. Nearly two thirds of cyclist fatalities happened in the morning peak. Of the cyclists killed by collisions with lorries, 77% of those were specifically with Heavy Goods Vehicles. According to a 1994 British Medical Journal study on the cause of cyclist’s deaths in London, HGVs make up just 6% of London’s traffic. The same report, which our policy-makers and leaders have had in their hands since 1994, states the following clearly:
"Primary prevention of accidents involving cyclists could be achieved by reducing dangers from high risk vehicles"
"In inner London, in relation to their traffic volume, HGVs are estimated to cause 30 times as many cyclists deaths as cars and five times as many as buses. Until the factors leading to this excess risk are understood, a ban on HGVs in urban areas should be considered."
And there’s our problem. Whilst cyclists should, of course, take as much responsibility for their own safety as possible, the entire onus seems to have been placed solely on the shoulders of the most vulnerable road user by safety campaigns seeking to solve this problem.
Much has been written about how cyclists can limit their exposure to risk (see my advice here) and the message has been out there for some time now. Haulage operators are apparently fitting more mirrors and some have installed side impact warning sensors. But despite this, still the deaths are occurring: the death rate for cyclists killed by lorries have remained tragically high and tragically steady for many years now.
Some have tried to capitalise on the rise in new cyclists on our roads as a satisfactory excuse for the death rate, and yet many of those killed have been shown to be highly experienced riders. Indeed, of the 8 cycle couriers known to have died whilst working in London ALL have been killed by heavy goods vehicles of some sort; these are possibly some of the most experienced riders on our roads.
Others still have spoken at how the very design of lorries means they are inherently difficult to see cyclists from; that despite the driver doing all of the right things they had no chance of even seeing a cyclist before they run them over. This idea that lorries are difficult to use in urban environments by their very design, regardless of the driver’s intentions, is unsatisfactory (and there have been well publicised cases of cyclists being killed not because they weren’t seen but because the driver of the truck failed to even look. Emma Foa springs to mind; decked out in high vis and a helmet and sitting in the Advanced Stop Line waiting for the lights to turn to green, she was killed by a lorry driven by a man who was too busy looking through his time-sheets and paperwork to even deign to look in his mirrors as he turned across and over the top of her. He would later be fined just £300 and be allowed to keep his license).
Even less still has been written about the inherent criminality of many of the lorries on our roads. Skip lorries and tipper trucks are paid by the load; the faster they drive the more they get paid; their very corporate culture encourages the drivers of the most dangerous and largest vehicles to take unnecessary risks. Manufacturers of a new type of cement mixer lobbied to have their vehicles classified as ‘mobile plant’ so that they are exempt from all of the EU safety regulations that apply to HGVs, are frequently overloaded due to their extra-weight axle design, and can be driven by poorly trained, poorly paid drivers without any driving hour regulations, and don’t have to have an HGV-specific MOT: for all these reasons these vehicles are increasingly being used by the construction industry in London because they are seen as ‘value for money’. I presume that there is a dialogue that has to be maintained between cycle safety campaigners and haulage firms and that this is why few seem willing to point out that over 70% of ALL the lorries inspected by the Met Police Commercial Vehicles Inspection Unit since 2005 have been found to have some form of illegal defect; overloading, underinflated tyres, faulty tachographs, drivers exceeding their legal hour limit, drivers being illegal workers or unlicensed, doors held together with wire coat hangers as they speed down narrow residential streets; that sort of thing. (See video of Mayor Boris Johnson nearly being taken out in exactly these circumstances)
Unbeknown to many is that there is a ban on lorries in London at certain times: the “London Lorry Control Scheme” was set up in 1985 to address noise pollution concerns. It bans HGVs from operating in central London and other densely populated areas on the outskirts from 9PM to 7AM Monday to Friday, 1PM to midnight on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays. Whilst concerns about noise pollution are of course valid, it seems ludicrous in the extreme that this very scheme encourages lorries to come roaring out of their yards fully laden with goods, dashing to make their first delivery, into the morning rush hour peak: the very time when the most cyclists are making their way to work, children are walking to school and people are waiting at bus stops. Perhaps, if lorries are the largest cause of cyclist’s deaths and serious injuries, this can explain why most of those deaths and injuries occur in the AM peak?
We’ve seen that fitting safety mirrors to lorries, and telling cyclists to not follow cycle paths past lorries to the ASL have had no effect on the death statistics. Unless we want to continue repeating this abhorrent macabre pattern it’s time that more radical thinking took place and the onus for vulnerable road user’s safety was placed on the operators of the cause of the casualties.
The Met Police, our cycling campaigns, the Mayor and the haulage industry must go back to the drawing board as a matter of priority and push for the lorry ban to be amended to include the peak hours. The legislation is in place and just needs to be changed, the recommendations are there from the British Medical Journal, and the statistics speak for themselves: our ‘powers that be’ just need to grow some balls on this issue and do something about it. Otherwise the inevitable can only continue to happen.
I know that many of you are extremely concerned about the volume of cyclist deaths; too many of us are thinking “There but for the grace of God go I”. I know that many of you, especially touched by the recent deaths, want to see urgent action on this issue. We need to keep the heat turned up on this issue in order for it to become a priority, and for that reason I call upon you all to come to this Friday’s Critical Mass. I understand that this Friday will not be your ‘usual’ Critical Mass and there are plans afoot for it to visit the sites where the three cyclists were killed this year. I know that many cyclists have an antithetical relationship with Critical Mass but as a ride with no leaders and no chosen route it is what it becomes by the virtue of the people who attend. It's the best tool we have for getting cyclists in the same place at the same time saying the same thing and is what we make it by being on it; I'll be there on Friday and if you care about cycling I would encourage you to be there too.
It’s time for positive action, before another cyclist is killed.
Critical Mass: Critical Mass is held on the last Friday of every month. It has no official organiser and no pre-designated route and cyclists of all abilities and backgrounds are welcome. Meet outside the BFI, beneath Waterloo Bridge, this Friday the 26th March from 6.00PM.