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No To Longer Lorries

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:38

Kevin MayneKevin Mayne, Chief Executive of CTC – The UK’s National Cyclists’ Organisation

Great Britain has the safest roads in Europe. However if you’re a child, a pedestrian or a cyclist, we are one of Europe’s poorer performers. And one of the major threats to both pedestrians and cyclists is lorries.

Kate Cairns’s sister Eilidh was killed by a lorry while cycling to work one morning. Kate has successfully persuaded 401 MEPs – well over half the European Parliament – to support a “Written Declaration” calling for EU-wide action to reduce the threat, and the Commission now has to respond.

Goods vehicles make up just 5% of road traffic mileage in Great Britain, and this is disproportionately on motorways and trunk roads where there are few if any pedestrians or cyclists for them to hit. Yet they still manage to account for around 12% of pedestrian deaths, and 19% of cyclist deaths. In London the problem is much more acute – lorries are involved in at least 50% of cyclist fatalities and up to 90% during some years.

So you would have thought that the Government’s road safety strategy, published earlier this year, would have aimed to address this problem. Sadly, the opposite is true. The Department for Transport (DfT) is currently considering plans to increase the length of lorries permitted on UK roads by over two metres. DfT’s consultation document on the proposals suggested that this would make no difference to 85% of fatal collisions involving lorries. This seems highly implausible given that most of the fatal collisions with lorries involve them turning left. Either you place the lorry’s axle at the back and the middle of the lorry will cut in more tightly at corners, or you put the axle further forward and the lorry’s tail will swing out more. Either way, other road users are threatened, with pedestrians and cyclists being particularly vulnerable.

It gets worse. Longer lorries will get stuck at corners on narrow streets and lanes, causing congestion or damaging buildings and verges. Consequently, local authorities will come under pressure to widen the corners at junctions. That’s not only costly for them, but will also make it easier for everyone else to speed through the junctions.

Longer lorries will inevitably lead to heavier lorries, which will increase the pressures on already overstretched road maintenance budgets. The local authorities Technical Advisors Group (TAG) estimates that councils will face a 25% increase in maintenance complaints, and that increased maintenance of footways and kerbs alone will cost an extra £410 million. All this at a time when we should be increasing freight on rail, for environmental as well as road safety reasons.

However the scariest aspect of these plans is that the Government seems intent on getting longer lorries onto the road without any prior parliamentary scrutiny. As the consultation document says, “The Government proposes a twin-track approach consisting of a trial operating under Vehicle Special Orders whilst obtaining the necessary clearances and the legislative changes to the Regulations through the Parliamentary process.” Well, it’s a funny sort of a trial if legislative changes are going on before the trial is completed. And how many lorry operators will invest a lot of money in longer lorries only to risk being unable to use them if, predictably, the “trial” reveals serious safety problems?

The Government is rightly keen to encourage more people to walk and to cycle, more safely, more often. There are all sorts of reasons to do this: health; climate; air quality; congestion; mobility for people who don’t or can’t drive (including children); calmer neighbourhoods and more attractive town centres where people will want to spend their money. All these benefits can be achieved by enabling more people to walk or cycle for day-to-day journeys – to school, to work, to the shops – and at remarkably little cost.

The irony is that so many other organisations are now really pulling together to reduce the threat which lorries pose to cyclists. London Mayor Boris Johnson’s Cycle Safety Action Plan is also heavily focussed on improving lorry safety. The freight sector wants to play its part, with many industry bodies opting to fit cameras and sensors to lorries, sending their lorry drivers on cycle awareness training courses and even having them train as cyclists. The London-based voluntary Freight Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) is proving remarkably effective in driving up standards of safety management, mainly because companies that fail to sign up won’t get work on contracts such as Crossrail.

CTC, the UK’s national cyclists organisation, is working with a coalition of partners co-ordinated by the Freight on Rail campaign to demand a safer and more sustainable means of moving freight around the country. Other partners include Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Better Transport, sustainable transport charity Sustrans, the pedestrians’ group Living Streets and the road crash victims’ group RoadPeace.

Together with the London Cycling Campaign, we are asking our members to contact their MPs, seeking their support for the abandonment of the plan for longer lorries and the development of a safe and sustainable framework for freight deliveries. Ultimately we want to see less freight on our roads and more of it travelling by rail instead, or the use of smaller vehicles in urban areas that can mix more safely with pedestrians and cyclists.

But there are plenty of quick wins too. Increased provision of cycle training – not just for would-be cyclists but also for lorry drivers – would be a start. So would a national roll-out of FORS. We would like the Government to support measures to ensure the widespread use of safety features already being adopted by the most safety-conscious lorry operators. Sensors and cameras are now incredibly cheap. The lives of cyclists definitely are not.