Lorries and other large vehicles are the single most important threat to cyclists in London. Since 2006, 89 riders died on the streets in the capital, at least 50 percent of them were killed by “heavy goods vehicles” (HGVs) or busses. The latest victim was a male rider who was killed last Friday at the junction of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street by a left turning coach.
According to a study entitled “Deaths of cyclists in london: trends from 1992 to 2006”,
“freight vehicles are approximately 24 times more likely to be involved in a fatal incident than cars, 4 times as likely as buses and 8.5 times as likely as motorcycles.”
In a poignant letter to the “Evening Standard”, two trauma surgeons recently highlighted the issue:
“We believe that more needs to be done to educate cyclists, drivers, road designers and those in government who are charged to lead and protect us to do more to prevent injuries amongst cyclists.”
London’s car-centric road layout and badly designed lorries are the main reasons for this tragedy. Due to a lot of construction work in the city, HGV traffic currently is on the rise in a lot of areas like King’s Cross, the City and the Southbank.
So how should cyclists cope with lorries?
An experienced London rider once gave me the single most important piece of advice:
“I avoid lorries like the plague.”
That’s basically it.
In a nutshell, the basic problem is that due to a misguided design of the vehicles, the drivers can’t see cyclists which are directly in front and alongside their vehicle. Lorry drivers have to deal with blind spots that are frighteningly large, especially on the left side of their vehicle.
This leads to three typical ways how lorries kill a cyclist.
Overtaking a lorry on the inside (“undertaking”)
One general advantage of the bicycle can turn lethal when it comes to lorries. As a cyclist, you can pass vehicles queuing in front of traffic lights. However, due to the massive blind spots of HGVs, the driver can’t see you when you’re alongside the vehicle.
When the traffic lights turn green and the lorry turns left, your life is at risk. As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) describes:
“When turning left, a lorry will often pull out to the right first. This creates a wide gap on the left side between the vehicle and the kerb, which many cyclists think is safe to ride into. But in fact this is a very dangerous place to be.
As the lorry begins to turn, it will swing back to the left very close to the kerb. The gap between the kerb and the lorry will disappear in an instant.”
A typical accident, that happened in February 2011, was recently described in the “Evening Standard”:
“[James] Moore had been riding in a cycle lane and drew level with the tanker’s front axle virtually as it began pulling away. He tried to cycle straight on but was hit by the lorry, which had stopped in the advance cyclist’s “box”, and had been indicating a left turn.”
When the tanker turned left, the cyclist was dragged under the lorry and was terribly injured, as the “Evening Standard” explains:
“He suffered injuries including a broken left fibia and tibia, a broken pelvis, a collapsed lung and several broken ribs. He was in a medically-induced coma for three weeks and in hospital for three months.”
This is how James Moore himself recalls the crash:
“I do remember quite clearly cycling along past the junction. Suddenly, without any warning I could see, the lorry turned on me. I remember screaming ‘Stop, stop’, I think, and I think I’m going to die. Then I can remember being under the lorry and in considerable pain.”
Hence, one of the most important safety tips is: Never cycle on the nearside of a lorry.
“Don’t pass a long heavy goods vehicle or bus in a traffic jam unless there’s a full, open lane next to it. Keep your distance. If you ride close to the side of such a vehicle it may begin to merge toward you, leaving you no way to escape.”
Another important piece of advice, also by RoSPA, is this:
“If you have to stop or give way at a junction where there are no motor vehicles waiting, it may be best to wait at a point about 1 metre away from the kerb, to ensure that other vehicles arriving after you (especially lorries) pull up behind you, rather than alongside you (where they may forget that you are there and fail to see you when they pull off).”
I’m also very wary when I have to pass a lorry on the right. The blind spots are smaller, but they are still existing. Hence, I take care to have some extra space (1,5 Meter or more) between me and the lorry.
Waiting in front of a lorry at a junction
Unfortunately, there’s also a significant blind spot in front of the lorry. The driver can’t see you when you’re standing in an Advance Stop Box directly in front of the lorry. When the lights turn green and you’re not out off the way quickly enough, you’re at the risk of being run over by the HGV.
A lot of cyclists are not aware of this danger (neither was I for a long time). This is how Kee, an experienced cyclist from London, described the blind spot in a comment on this blog:
“I was recently stopped by police in the City and invited to sit in various HGV vehicles that increasingly chock our city. The idea was to make cyclists aware that they cannot be seen. This was shockingly the case. Drivers are completely blind even if you are in front of them in the ‘cycling box’.”
I try to avoid standing right in front of a lorry at a red light. If possible, I just wait behind the lorry and don’t try to get in front of it. However, there are situations when you’re already waiting in front of the lights when a HGV turns up behind you. In such an occasion, I try to move forward into the junction as much as possible and try to make eye contact with the lorry driver. When you can see him, he can see you, too. When you look him in the eye, there’s a higher probability that he has realised that you’re there. When the lights turn, I make sure so get going as quickly as possible.
If it’s safely possible you might also consider jumping the lights in such an occasion.
A similar danger arises when you want to cross a congested street right in front of a lorry. If the traffic clears while you are still in front of the HGV, the driver can’t see you. Lisa Pontecorvo died in such a situation while wheeling her bike across Holloway Road in 2008. This is how a shopkeeper, who caught the crash on CCTV, described her Lisa’s death:
“Traffic on this side of the road was stopped. She started to cross the road but stopped between the lorry and a car. She was waiting for traffic on the other side to stop. The lights changed and the lorry started to move.”
Even though I’m aware of the danger I foolishly got myself in a similar situation recently when I was trying to cross Kingsland Road at the junction of Tottenham Road. Fortunately, I escaped without any harm but cursed myself afterwards abundatly.
Being passed by a lorry that then turnes left / clips you
This is the biggest of all nightmares: It can happen that a lorry passes you and then cuts in or turns left. Fortunately, I never experienced it myself but James Thomas, who build the ghost bike for Deep Lee at King’s Cross, recently described such an experience on this blog:
“I’d been on the cycle lane and [a royal mail HGV] cut in on me as he overtook me at speed. I had to stop and lean onto the pavement and he missed be by less than 10cm.”
A related situation occurs when a lorry overtakes you at a junction and then turns left. Dave H. puts it this way in a comment on this blog:
“Many of these deaths arise when a large vehicle overtakes and turns left. All that publicity about not going down the inside is a huge smokescreen about the real cause of left-hook crashes.”
This probably is the most awkward situation because there are fewer things you can do to avoid it. I try to cycle as little as possible on busy roads with lots of lorries but of course it is impossible to avoid them completely.
This is Dave H’s advise how to minimise the danger:
“You will protect yourself from this hazard by learning to competently look directly behind you and ideally clocking the driver of any truck square in the eyes – to make sure they have seen you (and they are not reading a map/using the phone etc) That means NO SHADES. As a back up you have a stereoscopic vehicle detector called EARS – TAKE OUT THOSE KILLER EARPIECES. Many coroners’ reports note that the dead cyclist was unlikely to have heard the truck/tram/train coming up behind and even sounding their horn because they had shut down their second most important piece of safety kit. Finally the eyes and ears are rendered useless if you have the brain disconnected – you are riding a bike on a busy road – it is illegal for bus drivers to multi-task and other drivers can also be prosecuted for similar behaviour, cyclists should be equally focussed.”
Another important aspect is road positioning. Don’t cycle in the gutter – this induces lorry drivers to pass you and gives you little room to maneuver. John S. Allen devotes an entire chapter on road positioning in his excellent e-book “Cycling Street Smarts”, that is freely available on the internet.
Here are some situations I encountered in London in the last year.
This is an example of a harmless looking situation that could easily have come dangerous. I was cycling southbound on Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden and approached this lorry at the junction of Long Acre and wanted to cycle straight on. The lorry was waiting in the lane for straight on traffic and was not indicating. However, when the lights turned green, it made a left turn anyway. If I would have passed the lorry on the left side trying to get in front of the vehicle and the lights would have changed in that moment, I would have been in trouble. However, I just waited behind the lorry.
While I was waiting behind the lorry, another rider passed us and positioned herself in front of the vehicle. I guess that she can be seen by the driver (I’m not completely shure, however).
Nevertheless, I think she took unnecessary risks. First of all, she did not try to make eye contact with the lorry driver who – as I could see in his rear mirror – talking on the phone and hence not fully concentrating on the traffic. Secondly, the rider stands in front of her traffic lights and hence will find it hard to realise when the lights switch to green. However, in such a situation, it is important to get out of the way of the lorry as quickly as possible.