Cyclists: Go Truck Yourselves

What a difference a day (and a bit) makes. From the Space for Cycling ride on Monday to another death and the Freight Transport Association’s kick in the teeth today.

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Monday was glorious. Thousands of cyclists filling the streets of Westminster and the south bank, a full mile-long phalanx of all kinds of people on all kinds of bikes packed into the road space. It was an uplifting display of young and old, recreationists and utilitarians, commuters and leisure riders, businessmen and eco-warriors, people of all races and genders and bikes to match, all coming together.

If anything, though, I thought it was a little too upbeat. I felt a slight twinge of angst as we passed through Parliament Square that there wasn’t more noise, more of a raw call for something to be done. Yes, the purpose was a hugely positive message of the future of our towns and cities; but it should not be forgotten that the reason for it being in sharp focus in people’s minds is that people are dying.

People like you and me, like all of us in that giant parade that night, die on the streets of the UK every week whilst riding a bicycle. Every three days, a family like yours or mine will not see a father, mother or child return home that night. Without warning, without reason, they are lost to a motor vehicle of some description.

In London, more than half the time, that vehicle is a lorry.

And so it was appalling to learn today – less than 48 hours after our joyous protest and the day after this horrific incident – that yet another young woman was crushed to death in London by a lorry.

Another death

Around noon, the Evening Standard reported the death of a woman in her thirties following a collision involving a large truck. She was declared dead at the scene.

The article notes the obvious and hideous irony of this fatality on a day when Boris Johnson and Stephen Hammond unveiled plans to address some of the safety issues with a number of the lorries used on London’s streets.

Hammond’s statement (given in full on the article) included the following:

First, we are establishing a dedicated Industrial HGV Task Force for London to raise awareness of safety requirements for HGV vehicles and their drivers, and take action against the minority that pose a danger to cyclists and other road users.

The Mayor and TfL are also exploring the feasibility of a new Safer Cycling Zone, in which vehicles not fitted with cycle safety equipment would be subject to large fines. Under national legislation, most HGVs like supermarket delivery lorries are required to be fitted with safety equipment such as sidebars or low skirts which protect cyclists and other vulnerable road users from being dragged underneath the vehicle in the event of a collision.

However, a number of vehicle types — particularly those operating in the growing construction sector — are exempt. So I have also announced today that the Department for Transport will review those exemptions. The ultimate aim will be to ensure that the vast majority of lorries in London are fitted with equipment such as side guards.

We will continue to press for better vehicle design to improve the visibility of bikes from lorry cabs. And we will work with cyclist and HGV driver training providers to promote greater awareness on the road.

In a nutshell, I think this can be summarised as:

  1. We’re at least taking this vaguely seriously.
  2. Some lorries aren’t currently required to meet a standard of safety that all other lorries are required to meet, and we’re going to see if we can bring them up to that standard.
  3. We’re going to encourage new vehicles to be safer than the old ones.
  4. We’re going to make mutual understanding a more important part of both HGV and cyclist training.

Now, whilst it’s certainly neither the daytime ban (as exists in Paris and Dublin) nor the segregated infrastructure (as exists throughout the Netherlands) that the cycling community are really crying out for, it’s a start.

Crucially, I don’t see much in that statement that could be considered controversial. Essentially it’s saying that some vehicles that have had it easy until now are going to be brought in line with every other vehicle, and then we’ll take some softer measures as well.

But the Freight Transport Association don’t seem to like it.

The FTA’s response

Today, at almost the same time as reports emerged of the death in Dulwich, the FTA chose to issue their response.

The key sections are here. I haven’t taken this out of context.

FTA views the Mayor’s decision as unprecedented and authoritarian and considers it to be one that will create a mess of confused standards … A huge amount of investment has been made by responsible operators who have gone over and above the minimum legal requirements to ensure that safety equipment is fitted to their vehicles. There are better ways of achieving safe roads for all road users.

We need to see cyclists taking responsibility for their actions, obeying traffic regulations, giving space to HGVs making manoeuvres and generally riding responsibly. Unless you also improve the behaviour of cyclists, the problem will not improve in the way that everyone wants.

FTA now calls on government and cycling groups to work together in order to ensure that current and future cyclists obey the rules and share the road co-operatively and responsibly.

Got that?

The FTA is saying that it’s had enough of being held responsible for the fact that over half of London’s fatalities occur under the wheels of the vehicles that it represents; vehicles that make up just four per cent of London’s traffic.

The FTA is also saying that the ball is in the cyclists’ court. They’re downing tools. Whatever you’ve got from them now, that’s enough. You want to survive? Stay the hell out of the way. We’re in charge on the roads. We’ve got trucks. Trucks are big.

It is, pure and simple, an emphatic fuck you.

Well, fuck you back

Let’s look at one case. One of several. You may be familiar with it. Heard of Mary Bowers?

Mary Bowers, journalist at The Times, was injured in the most appalling way when Petre Beiu drove his truck over her. The incident triggered The Times’s Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, and the verdict triggered a rant of mine which ended up being sent to quite a lot of people’s MPs.

Let’s grab some snippets from The Times’s report of the verdict, shall we? Things that were court evidence, not things that were blurted out with no citation of fact by an organisation with a vested interest.

Beiu … previously admitted a series of tachograph offences, including driving a lorry for 20 hours in one day when the maximum is 9 hours.

Beiu had been too engrossed in a telephone conversation with a work colleague, on a hands-free mobile kit, when he knocked Ms Bowers off her bike.

Witnesses described how after Ms Bowers had been dragged under the lorry, Beiu had to be alerted to the incident by passers-by.

He had then jumped out of his cab and left the handbrake off, allowing the vehicle to roll forward at least 1.5m [over Bowers].

[Beiu] told jurors that he had not seen any cyclists.

A string of systematic failings (tachograph offences, phone calls to guide colleagues to locations), vehicle issues (inability to see, inability to hear) and driver ineptitude (failing to look, failing to apply the brake). Full house. Everyone should be sharing the blame here: the driver, the colleague, the vehicle operator, the whole damned industry.

Yet Bowers was obeying the law fully. She was waiting in the advanced stop line. She wasn’t jumping the light. The poisonous cherry on the shit-stained cake of the FTA’s victim-blaming is that had Bowers not obeyed the law she none of this would ever have happened.

The utterly unfathomable aspect is that the FTA miss the glaringly obvious point that neither would this have happened had the infrastructure been better. It is the fatally dangerous design of gutter-sucking painted cycle lanes and ASLs shaped to match a truck’s blind spot (though note that Bowers was deemed to have been clearly visible to Beiu for around 10 seconds) that are the true devil of the piece, and which it is in the interests of both cyclists and truck drivers to condemn.

The FTA could have sided with cyclists in arguing for what everyone wants, but instead it chooses – with scarcely believable timing – an appalling attitude of blaming the victims.

And is it victim blaming? The FTA won’t think so, but let’s take a look.

Facts and figures

First, let’s look at the breakdown of London traffic (source: TfL).

London traffic by vehicle type, 2010

London has seen seven cyclist fatalities so far this year. Let’s look at the breakdown of fatalities by type of vehicle also involved in the collision.

London cyclist fatalities by vehicle type, 1 January to 4 September 2012

Of the seven fatalities, five have involved HGVs (I apologise if I use the term “HGV” in an imprecise layman’s way, but I’m not sure pedantry over that would really help clarify the issue).

Of all the traffic on London’s roads, cyclists are managing to get killed primarily by a pretty specific 4% of it. That 4% has so far accounted for over 70% of cyclist deaths this year, as well as 53% over the previous four years.

As correlations go, that’s quite strong. If cyclists are the architects of their own demise, they’re making some pretty clear decisions about which vehicles they want to get killed by.

But, according to the FTA, these fatalities are heavily influenced by cyclists’ behaviour. They weren’t forthcoming on Twitter when I asked them to explain why this might be.

Even the “large vehicles” excuse doesn’t work. No-one has yet died this year as a result of being hit by a bus or a coach.

Far be it from me to suggest that buses and coaches don’t have gaping spaces at either side for a cyclist to be trapped under, or that their cabs have much more glass in them, or that public transport drivers’ pay isn’t structured in a way that encourages long shift work, or that if they used the phone whilst driving they would be found out immediately and likely dismissed.

No, definitely not those things. Definitely not anything to do with vehicle design or industry practices. No. Cyclists being naughty. They’re presumably simply better behaved around buses.

Get real

Look, anyone who says that all cyclists behave impeccably is insane. Plenty don’t, and it’s quite noticeable in London. I’ve been known to have a rant about London cyclists before.

But for any given level of idiocy, incapacitation or inattention, there’s a marked difference between the effects of those failings when applied to the control of a bicycle, a car or a lorry. The equations for momentum and kinetic energy are quite simple, as is the calculation of axle weights. You don’t even need to do the maths. Line the three vehicles up, sit in a stationary car, and then pick one to be propelled towards your car at 30mph. I’m guessing you’ll pick the one where you get a dented front wing and someone else ends up with severe injuries.

But let’s check out those HGV drivers that are law-abiding and work in an industry populated by – to quote the FTA – “responsible operators who have gone over and above the minimum legal requirements“:

Looking at recent cases, what about Anton Maizen, who “had been at work for nearly 23 hours and driving for nearly 15 hours of this 23 without a break” when he ploughed into stationary traffic at his vehicle’s maximum speed? Or Ethen Roberts, who sent and received nearly a hundred texts whilst at the wheel before eventually toppling his truck onto a car, killing both occupants? And let’s not forget – even though, admittedly, four years ago – the notorious case of Dennis Putz, who killed whilst drunk, on the phone, and having previously been caught driving whilst disqualified 20 times.

Let’s move away from individual examples and on to some numbers. How about a crackdown in Leicestershire which resulted in the prosecution of nearly a hundred HGV drivers in a single week? Or one this year in North Wales which found that 80% – ok, let me stop you a moment; eighty per cent, you got that? – of HGVs were “in breach of a range of laws from overloaded and defective vehicles to a driver without a valid licence“.

Eighty.

Per.

Cent.

But hang on.

In London, make it one hundred percent. A small sample, but the offences weren’t trivial: institutional failures of driver hours breaches, uninsured drivers and unlicensed operators; mechanical and loading failures; and drivers on the phone.

Remember, folks: the FTA is opposing an further action on the part of HGV operators and “now calls on government and cycling groups to work together in order to ensure that current and future cyclists obey the rules“.

You stay in that ASL in front of the truck with the overworked, distracted, unobservant driver. Don’t even think about crossing the line to get well ahead of him before he turns left. The FTA says “we need to see cyclists taking responsibility for their actions.”

Just like Mary Bowers did?

Hypocritical, bigoted, irresponsible, callous

To tell cyclists that they need to obey the rules, when you can field 80% or more of your vehicles illegally, including employing illegal drivers and systematically over-working drivers, is hypocritical in the extreme.

To tell the people who are most acutely vulnerable on the road that they are the biggest scofflaws, when the statistics show otherwise, and to tell them that they are responsible for being crushed by ten or twenty tons of truck, is bigoted beyond belief.

To say that although several types of heavy vehicle have more lenient safety standards than most, the industry will resist any change to improve the safety of these vehicles (even, seemingly, going so far as to describe the proposed fines for violations as “a charge“, as if some unavoidable tax) is absurd irresponsibility that is indicative of the industry’s neglect of safety in public spaces.

And to say all this within minutes of the reports of the death of yet another Londoner under the wheels of a truck is hideously callous.

Stop being so stupid. Stop the ridiculous posturing and trench-digging, look at the statistics that are heavily stacked against this victim-blaming, and start talking about something we can all agree on.

Start supporting the call for proper infrastructure.

16 thoughts on “Cyclists: Go Truck Yourselves”

  1. As an additional thought on the large vehicles thing- don’t forget that cyclists spend proprtionally more time in the same lanes as buses than lorries, as we’re (generally) allowed to use bus lanes (whilst trucks aren’t). So whilst there may be half as many buses as HGVs (reall? blimey) there’s possibly more time spent riding among them.

  2. Brilliant post Bez, nail on head. Further to Al’s comment above. Those TfL stats are total traffic volume for all major roads in London, including those which cyclists are effectively or actually banned from (Westway, A12, N Circular etc) & which carry a lot of trucks. Suspect that’s why the bus vs HGV figures are skewed vs what most cyclists see day-to-day, and only further emphasises the difference in danger vs overall exposure when comparing HGVs with buses.

  3. Great article and some really good valid points too. I stopped driving HGV’s 4 years ago as I hated the job and the ridicules pressure I was put under as a driver. I was also constantly questioned on why I was taking so long on trips my answer being that’s how long it takes driving at the speed limit. The industry is dangerous and needs to be brought into the real world fast!!! As a cyclist working in an office in Manchester I deal with terrifying drivers daily. London is busy but far safer than Manchester. No road safe, police that don’t take cyclist seriously, very bad to nil infrastructure and nothing being done about it anytime soon.!!!

  4. Very interesting article. I see HGV drivers, some in very large articulated trucks, using mobile phones whilst negotiating busy junctions or roundabouts on an almost daily basis.

  5. Some very good points and areas that need to be improved. The use of aggressive bad language is unfortunate, The FTA are correct, it is unprecedented ( t least in UK ) and makes a good start. It is authoritarian, again a good thing as an authority has to improve the situation. As cyclists we do have a responsibility for our own personal safety as well as lobbying for improved environmental safety. We have to lobby for drivers being held responsible for illegal and unsafe practices. We have to lobby for CEO’s of haulage companies being responsible for corporate manslaughter. Please They are not saying F you. Please Bez, don’t let the wider cycling community down by resorting to misplaced anger and bad language

    1. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, but isn’t it about (a) bringing some vehicles up to a wider standard and (b) then adopting better vehicle designs, as is already happening elsewhere? Neither seems unprecedented or authoritarian; certainly it’s nowhere near as authoritarian as the daytime bans in Paris or Dublin. However, if the devil is in some detail that I’ve missed I’m happy to be corrected.

      I’m not saying cyclists shouldn’t have some responsibility. What I’m saying is that the evidence clearly shows that they are not anywhere near as responsible for their deaths on London’s streets as are HGV drivers and operators, nor the designers of inherently dangerous infrastructure such as ASLs and painted cycle lanes in the gutter. I’m saying that the FTA, by apparently refusing to raise its standards any further, is being irresponsible. I’m making neither judgment nor comment on cyclists.

      As for letting the community down, that is absurd. If my response to repeated deaths under trucks includes the word “fuck” then I don’t think that’s unreasonable. It’s not letting people down if a little anger shows. Rest assured that whenever I communicate directly I’m as polite as you like, but this is personal blog that represents my opinion alone. If people share it, that’s up to them, but you should accuse them of “letting the community down”. There are plenty of bloggers who are admirably sanguine and matter of fact; there are plenty more who are raging and railing. There is room for a voice that strikes a balance. That’s where I try to fit into the picture. “Anger is an energy” as a spiky-haired man once sang, it’s just that it’s important to back up that anger with evidence. Which is what I strive to do.

      But if you ask me, the only people letting the cycling community down here are those who build dangerous cycling facilities and those who drive trucks and operate fleets unsafely.

      1. Bez, I am in near total agreement. Maybe I don’t understand the term unprecedented. FTA use the word as a criticism. To me it just means an original idea , one that hasn’t been imposed before and that is , in my books, a change for the good. Also authoritarian is not necessarily a derogatory term. Just means that someone wiser then them has had to tell them what to do.
        On reflection you are not letting the wider community down, quite the reverse but using swear words in some ways gives organisations eg FTA the upper hand.
        Having said all that I have said, I share your concerns and agree with your arguments and am frustrated that our local cycle advocacy groups are seemingly unable to get their message across,
        Keep it safe out there and keep up the blogs.

      2. I guess my thoughts are that since other vehicles are already subject to the pertinent standards it is neither unprecedented nor authoritarian. The FTA is certainly using to put up the barricades.

        I’m ambivalent about the language to be honest. Sometimes it’s in, sometimes I leave it out. On the one hand I agree, it undermines things a little. On the other, it rallies people a little. It’s a fine balance.

    1. Sara, you are right, the anger is directed appropriately. Unfortunately the FTA could argue that the use of swear words is wong and they are not saying f off. This allows them to deflect the argument from the core issue which is a shame as the rest of Bez’s argument is informed, insightful and well worth quoting. That being said, the FTA is only representing their industry. It would be good if they could see the wider picture, but they aren’t really telling us to F off.

      1. I’m sure the FTA would indeed, for several reasons, say they’re not telling cyclists to eff off. And I’m sure it’s not what they’re trying to say.

        It’s how it comes across, though.

        But my point is not really that. It’s that their statements are symptomatic of a common attitude which is demonstrably not upheld by the evidence, and which is rooted in the inherently danger-prone idea that all road users in combination with their vehicles have equal responsibility , rather than the much more egalitarian principle that all road users’ safety and objectives are of equal value.

  6. Language is only bad if used badly. Here the anger it expresses is just. Misplaced anger is that sprked by, say, not getting one’s way. The only human response to the FTA is one of anger, as it blames the most vulnerable for being vulnerable and as a result being killed. This is righteous anger expressed out of concern for others. The language expresses it. Even I, who doesn’t swear, gets it and agrees. If those who protest and use bad language as a reason to dismiss the argument are being self-righteous and drawing a non sequitur conclusion.

  7. Excellent article. In the last week I have started a new job in London and decided to cycle to work.
    Even though I have cycled to work in Oxford and in Perth, Australia, I was pretty daunted about cycling in London as it seems to be a whole different kettle of fish.
    It’s surprising as I’m sure London has as many commuter cyclists on the road as Oxford and Perth but having driven my route through Hammersmith roundabout and Shepherd’s Bush, I knew that it was ghastly in a car, let alone on a rather vulnerable two wheeled bicycle.
    So far, it has been ok, but I’m very wary of the buses stopping and moving off.
    Thanks to your article, I will be steering well clear of HGVs.

  8. “Safer Cycling Zone, in which vehicles not fitted with cycle safety equipment would be subject to large fines.”

    Large fines? Just ban them and hit the drivers with points on their licence and revoke operator’s permits…

    Fines are no good… just another cost of doing business. :(

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