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

By Rosie Downes

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.

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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.

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