Exchanging Places, or Exchanging Responsibility?

Time and again we’re shown who’s expected to take responsibility for road safety, and time and again it’s the people who don’t have the fast and massive piles of metal.

A safety message

Yet another little safety message this morning, this time from The Metropolitan Police’s Safer Transport Command.

It’s familiar stuff. Drivers of HGVs supposedly can’t see you if you’re in a certain area. The idea of the “Exchanging Places” scheme is that people who ride bikes can sit in the cab and get a feel for the view afforded to an HGV driver (and presumably also a more general overview of the complexity of operating a vehicle of this type). Superficially, this seems like a good thing. Pragmatically, given the status quo, it’s not unwise, either.

Of course, that area is the same as that of the advance stop line (ASL) areas and feeder lanes that are painted for the use of people on bicycles, so it’s massively hypocritical of the transport system to provide these features and then point out that they’re lethal.

But that area also encroaches onto a pedestrian crossing – the precise reason why Darren Foster not was not held to be legally responsible for the death of Hope Fennell when he drove his truck over her.

So whilst the hypocrisy of pointing out bad engineering is depressing, the Exchanging Places scheme is a perfect illustration of a problem which is far more fundamental, more insidious – and, therefore, arguably even more dangerous.

What it does is to say “Hey, you on the bike. This truck can’t see you if you’re in this space. So don’t go there.” Which, pragmatically, is fine on one level.

What it doesn’t do – at least as far as I can ascertain – is to say “Hey, you in the truck. You can’t see people in this space. So don’t project that space onto an ASL or a pedestrian crossing.”

A moving issue

You see, here’s the thing: the ASLs and pedestrian crossings don’t move. They’re painted onto the tarmac. It’d be lovely if we could carry them round with us, magically projected onto the ground, wouldn’t it? But we can’t.

But that is exactly how an HGV’s blind spot works. It’s carried around with the vehicle, magically – albeit invisibly – projected onto the ground.

Someone on foot does not have the luxury of being able to position the crossing.

Someone on a bike does not have the luxury of being able to position the ASL.

But someone in an HGV has the luxury of being able to position the blind spot.

Yet there is no message that they should stop the blind spot behind the stop line. Despite the driver being the one person in the equation having the ability to eliminate the overlap of the blind spot with the spaces reserved for vulnerable users, and being the one in control of the vehicle that will unilaterally cause death, the responsibility is all on others.

The responsibility is on those who can be killed, not those who can kill.

And the Exchanging Places scheme, well-intentioned as it may appear, cements this incredibly dangerous attitude that is in the blood of British road law and use.

Moreover, the fact that it’s aimed at people on bikes – but not people on foot – is illuminating, because it simply doesn’t work when applied to the latter. If that blind spot is projected onto a pedestrian crossing, you just can’t say to pedestrians “keep out of it”. The crossing is there to mark where they should cross the road. On a bike, at least there is the option to recognise that the painted markings are a lethal trap and to avoid passing a stationary HGV, but pedestrians have no choice.

You can’t go Exchanging Places with pedestrians. It’s totally meaningless; they’ll just say, “well, what do you expect me to do?”

What could Hope Fennell have done?

And this is why placing the onus of responsibility onto the inevitable victims is flawed: they’re simply not in a position to be able to assure their own safety.

A simple change

Here’s a thought; something that would be simple and effective: One rule should change.

The rule should no longer be that one must simply stop one’s vehicle behind the stop line; it should be that one must stop one’s vehicle so as to be able to see the stop line.

To make this change would reverse the absurdity of no-one being responsible for Hope Fennell’s death, among others (didn’t see the person you ran over on the crossing when setting off? – should have stopped further back).

To make this change could prevent anyone having to comment on that absurdity again.

And to make this change would be a clear shift in responsibility to where it should be: onto those who have control over both the blind spot and the overwhelming physical upper hand, and away from those who can control neither.

The line of sight is more important than the front bumper; Exchanging Places teaches us that. It’s just a shame that it’s really about Exchanging Responsibility.

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15 thoughts on “Exchanging Places, or Exchanging Responsibility?”

  1. Seconded. It really does seem that someone didn’t think things through properly when ASLs were originally designed…

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the recommendations that you are giving. As an avid cyclist (see my blog at http://through-hell-on2wheels.blogspot.co.uk) I certainly have experienced the best and worst of it. Being a former HGV driver (gave it up for an office job) I also know that drivers are supposed to be careful considerate and professional! Every time one nearly kills me (happens about once a week) I give them a piece of my mind and let them know what they are doing wrong. Sadly in an industry that pays it’s drivers peanuts you can only expect to get monkeys!!!

  3. As an idea I love it.

    It would remove the defence of SMIDSY due to the blindspot after the fact and that has to be a good thing.

    My one concern would be if it would be enforceable prior to an accident such that it changed behaviour making everyone safer. With the vigor that an objective ASL transgression is dealt with by the police, would they be interested in a subjective ‘I don’t think he can see the stop line from there’ blindspot transgression?

    A revision to TRO to move stop lines further back from the junction/crossing would do the same job, making people visible in front of the truck, but without putting the responsibility onto the driver and I don’t like that as much.

    Perhaps we should do both…

    1. Like any law, some people would ignore it. But it would be very clear that if you ignored it and caused a collision you’d be culpable.

      Really this is solely an issue for HGVs etc: even if a car driver can’t actually see the stop line, their forward line of sight is low enough to see people on foot or on bikes.

      It’s not a proposal that would have a particularly huge effect in practice, I suspect (though if it saves one or two lives a year? – that’s a huge effect for one or two families) but I see it as a highly significant step in two regards. Firstly,it may improve vulnerable users’ confidence on the roads. And secondly – and more fundamentally – it would be a recognition of where the responsibility for large vehicles with blind spots really should lie. It’s perhaps symbolic as much as it is practical, but I think both are worthy and interlinked values.

    2. SMIDSY is an admission of guilt, not an extenuating circumstance. If you didn’t see another road user, there are a few possible reasons:
      * defective eyesight – you shouldn’t be driving => dangerous driving
      * blindspot – you should be aware of your blindspots and drive accordingly => dangerous driving
      * not looking properly – => dangerous driving
      * Going too fast for the road conditions / visibility => dangerous driving

      That last one is really important. If you hit someone or something in the fog, it’s your fault for going too fast. If you hit someone or something because of sun glare: ditto.

      I suppose you could sometimes argue that the other road user was going too fast, but that seem unlikely with cyclists in most (*) conditions.

      (*) Yes, I have seen that youtube video of the guy hitting 104km/h in the alps. That’s why I said “most”

      1. “SMIDSY is an admission of guilt, not an extenuating circumstance.”

        In a normal, civil society but with motor vehicles involved the onus is placed on the victim to show that they made themselves as visible as possible.
        I have a recent personal experience of this. Seven days ago I was knocked off by a car making a right turn, across me, right into a side street. The driver’s first words were “Sorry, I didn’t see you”.
        My conversation with the Police was dominated by them wanting to know what the weather was like, what visibility was like, what I was wearing, whether I had a front light on. I could hear the tone in his voice when I said it had been raining, that I wasn’t wearing a hi-vis jacket & didn’t have my light on at 9am; apparently there isn’t much point me making a formal statement but I can if I want.

  4. Its a simple fix to install a mirror which covers that area immediately in front of a lorry or coach etc, presumably a lobby is pressurising against this being mandatory, inview of the inevitably increased liability such a measure would bring.

  5. An easy way to force drivers to stop well before the stop line is not to have repeater lights at the opposite side of the junction, as is done in Germany, for example. Traffic lights are only on the side or above the road at the stop line. If a driver moves too far forward and encroaches on the pedestrian area, then they can’t see the lights any more, or they have to bend their necks quite uncomfortably.

    Of course, signalled junctions work somewhat differently in Germany. Even at green lights you can only move into a junction if the exit is clear. This means that once you have passed the stop line there is no need to see the signal any more because you’re supposed to clear the junction whatever the signal shows.

    The other significant difference is that green for vehicles and green for pedestrian are not exclusive, so you don’t get “pedestrian phase” where all vehicle traffic is stopped. This sounds more dangerous at first, but it’s quite the opposite because drivers know that, when they turn left or right, they will cross the paths of pedestrians who have priority, so they are forced to look out and make sure that their path is free.

  6. Exchanging Places does get HGV drivers onto bikes and have them ride past and in front of an HGV to illustrate to them where cyclists are invisible, so it is in fact fair in that respect, but otherwise you make some great points and UI totally agree with your suggestion that one rule needs to be changed.

  7. Whilst I agree with what you’ve written about the responsibility being on the driver rather than the drivers victims, I fear that your proposal would only lead to cyclists placing themselves in the blindspot no matter how far back the vehicle stopped from the stop line.
    I’d like to see far more controls on where and when HGV’s can drive.
    As I read your article a Homebase signed HGV just went past my living room window. This is a narrow residential street with cars parked on either side, totally innapropriate for such a vehicle to be driving here. Of course, he’ll have delivered a sofa or some kitchen units further along the street, but such items could as easily be delivered in a smaller van more suited to the infrastructure.
    I believe that some countries have much stricter regulations on HGV’s and the access they are allowed to urban areas.

    I’d also like to see much more focus on an exchanging places scheme that puts HGV drivers on bikes whilst an HGV thunders by at 40mph with inches to spare – lets see how they like them apples.

  8. It may also be that shifting some of that responsibility (duty of care) the to the ‘employer’ rather than the driver will also have an impact. Moves are afoot to get a high vision cab requirement for trucks operating in London, managed in the way already in place for low emission engines, such that you would, in say 5 years time, not be able to drive a high cab low direct vision cab in London without a hazardous vehicle permit.

    That said I do think the concept of being able to see the stop line in front of your vehicle is one that could be applied to the Highway Code, if not the law.

    Hitting an employer/operator with fines is likely to see larger fines reflecting the corporate liability, and perhaps drive a greater use of trucks which have substantially reduced blind spot areas.

    That said I really like the lateral thinking there.

    BTW if you inhabit parts of Poplar/Newham during the day, whay not sample the level of HGV traffic in the traffic mix outside the rush hour. Around the Blackwall Tunnel approaches I reckon it could be up to 40% of vehicle movements on near empty roads, which are only filled to gridlock for about an hour, morning and evening, and quite likely the truck drivers already take their break when the car commuting lemmings pour out. Hence a rush hour ban on truck movements would make minimal difference.

  9. I observe the opposite trend to this great idea — more drivers are treating the location of their body as being a proxy for their vehicle, ie they stop so that the vehicle projects over the stop line, crossing or whatever. As long as they, personally, are behind the line, that’s OK. Sometimes they have to crane back in the seat to see a traffic light.

    I am going to personally follow this rule from now on; being able to see the stop line over the bonnet won’t make very much difference to journey time, and gives space for bikes, motorbikes etc to get in front safely. I might impose a personal 20mph limit in streetlight areas as well.

  10. I can see nothing wrong with your reasoning. Its very clear that ‘stop such that you can see the stop line in front of you’ is better. Or, at least, it SHOULD be better.

    Dunno if anyone else has mentioned it in the comments, but I do rather fear that this would create a pseudo-stop-box in front of HGV’s, which might certainly tempt inexperienced cyclists to sit behind the white line in exactly the same dangerous position you’re trying to prevent ASL’s becoming. One could argue that the shouldn’t do it, but I’ve little doubt it would happen – in Cambridge we get a massive influx of newbie cyclists every year, and I very often see them struggling with positioning around HGV’s.

    So for the most part, excellent idea – but only part of the solution of course!



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