Lorries have been involved in six cycling fatalities in London this year. It’s time to tackle the blind spot

The lorry's blind spot. Image: London Cycling Campaign.

It’s no secret that lorries are hugely overrepresented in fatalities and serious injuries in London. They make up just 4 per cent of traffic, yet all six cycling fatalities on London’s roads in 2015 have involved them.

Most such crashes happen at junctions, when lorries turn left across the path of a cyclist that the driver hasn’t seen. The most dangerous place is in the “lorry risk zone”, to the front-left of the lorry.

One of the key reasons for this is severely restricted driver vision on most lorries, which makes safe working very difficult even for careful drivers. The restricted vision on the largest and most dangerous vehicles on our roads is often taken for granted: “safety campaigns” regularly target cyclists, implying that, if a collision occurs, then it's the cyclist's fault for not having stayed back.

But to eliminate fatalities on our streets, we should be aiming to remove the danger at source – and that means getting rid of the blind spot.

Most modern refuse lorries in the UK now have low cabs with good visibility. These were originally designed to allow refuse collectors to get in and out frequently, and to ensure that the driver had maximum visibility to prevent collisions with workers carrying bins, as well as providing greater protection for pedestrians and cyclists on residential streets.

Two years ago London Cycling Campaign commissioned an artist’s impression for a “Safer Urban Lorry”. This put the cab design of a modern refuse lorry together with the lower chassis from a construction lorry, and has the same load-carrying capacity.

The seating position in our lorry is lower than in a conventional construction lorry, providing the driver which a much better view of what’s going on around their vehicle. Larger windscreen and side windows further improve the visibility to the front and side – and the area to the front-left of the lorry, where the vast majority of lorry-cyclist collisions occur, is clearly visible.

The Safer Urban Lorry. Image: Release the Chicken Visual Communications.

Two years on, these trucks have become a reality. Mercedes-Benz now produce a tipper, a skip lorry and a concrete mixer, all with direct vision and lorry cabs about a metre lower than conventional cabs, improving visibility significantly and virtually eliminating blind spots.

A full-length glass folding passenger side door means drivers can see approaching cyclists and pedestrians on their inside – and there is no danger of the door itself opening out into a cyclist’s path. Regulation mirrors are attached independently of the door, so a driver opening the door continues to see what is behind them in the mirror as they are getting out; while windscreen pillars are made of glass to improve visibility.

Mercedes aims to gather feedback on the first three trucks over the next six months, with a view to further production. It’s difficult to imagine anything but positive feedback. Dennis Eagle reports that, when construction drivers from building firm Laing O’Rourke were given the opportunity to use direct vision cabs, they didn’t want to switch back to conventional lorries. 

The firm estimates the cost of one of their direct vision models at about 15 per cent more than a conventional model. But the benefits of these vehicles vastly outweighs the costs. Avoiding collisions clearly has a benefit from the perspective of the potential victim – and the government estimates the cost of a single road death at £1.7m. But avoiding collisions also benefits the driver, who can be severely traumatised by an incident; and the fleet owner, whose employee and vehicle may be out of commission for a significant period.

Just as blind spots aren’t inevitable, neither is street design that puts cyclists at risk. Much more must be done to design out the chance of cyclists being hit by turning traffic at junctions.

But safe space for cycling, and safer lorries, will take time to implement. In the mean time, it’s critical that all lorry drivers have cyclist-awareness training; that companies only buy haulage services from reputable firms; and that better sensor technology to identify cyclists and pedestrians is further developed.

No cyclist should be threatened with the risk of death or serious injury from unsafe lorries. Our vision is to ensure these lorries are removed from our streets. With the elimination of blind spots on the horizon, we’re one step closer.

Rosie Downes is campaigns manager at London Cycling Campaign, which campaigns to make cycling safe and inviting for everyone.

LCC’s vision is to transform our city into a healthier, cleaner and happier place to live, where cycling is a choice for any Londoner who wants to ride the streets conveniently and without fear.

Additional research by Tom Bogdanowicz.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.