How to deal with lorries as a cyclist

The rider escaped unharmed (Photo courtesy of Steve Biggs)

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.

In his his excellent e-book “Cycling Street Smarts” (freely available on the internet), John S. Allen writes:

“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.

Two Examples

Here are some situations I encountered in London in the last year.

Just stay behind, example 1

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.

I took this picture in Islington on Cross Street at the junction of Essex Road and wanted to make a right turn onto Essex Road.

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.

Advertisements

Cyclist Killed at King’s Cross – A predictable death

Usually it’s great when you’re proven right. This time, however, it is utterly frustrating and appalling. In April I wrote a blog post about the dangers for cyclists around King’s Cross / St. Pancras and stated:

“It might be only a question of time until someone gets hit at King’s Cross / St. Pancras

On 3 October, unfortunately, this is precisely what happened. Around 11.40am Min Joo Lee, 24, was killed by a lorry on Pentonville Road at the junction with York Way. (The police report says it happened at the junction with Kings Cross road, but given this photo the cops got the location wrong.)

Few details are publicly known about the crash at the moment and we should not jump to conclusions. The police is looking for witnesses – if you saw something, please get in touch with the Road Death Investigation Unit at Alperton on 0208 998 5319.

Continue reading “Cyclist Killed at King’s Cross – A predictable death”

Will 2011 become a black year for cyclists in London?

2011 may become a black year for cyclists in London. Yesterday, the latest cyclist was killed by a lorry, report the Evening Standard and London 24. At the moment, only few details of the crash are known. It happened at 3.20pm on the junction Camden Road and St. Pancras Way.


According to my mostly hand collected statistics, the number of killed cyclists in London in 2011  has risen  to 8 (compared to 10 in 2010) Details  about all crashes are available here. These numbers are terrible and depressing.

However, I strongly caution to read  any real trend out of this. These numbers do not show that cycling in London has become more dangerous recently!

Since 1986 the number of cyclists killed in London per year varies massively. On average, from 1986 to 2010 , 17.2 cyclists died per year. If there is any trend, there seems to be a slight decline in the more recent years. The average from 1986 to 1999 was 18.3 while from 2000 to 2010 it was 15.9. However, the  yearly variation is huge. For example, in 2004 only 8 cyclists died. One year later the number rose to 21. The worst year as 1989 with 33 fatalities.

All in all, the absolute numbers of dead cyclists  are very small (fortunately!). Statistically this makes it almost  impossible to  detect any reliable medium to longterm patterns. Statisticians call this the “law of small numbers“. A recent academic paper by Andrei Morgan et al. ( “Deaths of cyclists in london: trends from 1992 to 2006“)  puts it this way:

… the number of cyclists killed in London remains small, meaning that even if trends were present, they may not have been detected.

I recently had an email exchange  with Andrei Morgan, a researcher with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine regarding the numbers. Among other things  I asked him the following question:

What was going on in 2004? Why was the number of killed cyclists so much lower in that year? Was it  just luck?  The number of seriously injured cyclists was very low as well, which might indicate that something else was happening. Was the  weather particularly bad (probably not, since your relative estimates went down as well. Have there been significantly fewer construction sites and in London?

This is what Andrei answered:

There are, of course, many possible reasons for this. But statistically speaking, if annual deaths are modelled using a poisson distribution, as we did, one would expect between 8 deaths and 25 deaths given that the average underlying rate was 15 deaths per year.

Two things, however, are for sure from my point of view.

1) Transport for London and the major are massively  missing their aim to reduce cycling fatalities. Boris Johnson sees it differently. He’s recently argued:

I would however like to make the point that cycling in London is getting safer the whole time. I know it may not feel like that but the statistics show that while cycling has more than doubled in the last ten years the number of serious injuries and fatalities has declined by a fifth.

I don’t take issue with the fact that cycling has more than doubled in the last ten years. But I think the statistics at least with regards to fatalities don’t say much.  Severe injuries  have declined, but there are some doubts about the  figures (possible reporting bias)

2) Lorries are the biggest single danger to cyclists in London. Between 2009 and 2011, 51% of all fatal cycling accidents involved lorries. According to Morgan et al. between 1996 and 2010 “freight vehicles were involved in over 40% cyclists killed”. Boris, if you really want to make cycling safer in London,  do something about the lorries! In their “No More Lethal Lorries” campaign, the  LCC has drafted a five point plan.

  • Cyclist-awareness training for drivers. All city lorry drivers should be have ongoing cycle-awareness training, including on-bike experience.
  • Drivers must take more responsibility. Authorities must recognise driver responsibility for doing everything practical to reduce risks. Blaming a ‘blind spot’ should be an admission of guilt.
  • Safer design for London lorries. Lorries designed for off-road use should be taken off city streets. The best mirrors, cameras and sensors should be fitted as standard.
  • Higher standards from lorry operators. Quality-assurance schemes such as London’s Freight Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) should be mandatory, and the police encouraged to crack down on rogue operators.
  • More responsible procurement Companies must only buy haulage services from reputable firms, with government taking a lead in encouraging best practice.

Boris, please don’t boast about shady statistics anymore. Get real and fully endorse all those  points. Just sign  and implement the  LCC  petition.

A reply to Celia Walden: You owe Tom Barrett a profound apology

I’ve never heard of Celia Walden* before, but my Google Alert on “cyclist” and “killed” has just drawn my attention to her. She’s the author of just another rant against cyclists which has been published in the “Daily Telegraph”.

Celia is describing a close call with a female cyclist who

swerved into the middle of my lane without signalling. There was no helmet, of course, and no high-visibility gear – which would have marred the whole sunny tableau. The worst accident she could think of was that her skirt might flutter up to reveal a charming pair of white cotton knickers.

In the next paragraph Celia confesses:

basically I loathe all London cyclists. (…) these people live in a fantasy world. (…) Traffic signals don’t apply to London cyclists, up there as they are on the moral high ground with their officially endorsed sense of righteousness. Sociologically, polls have shown that they tend to be a preening, upper-middle class bunch.

The most shocking sentence comes in the third paragraph:

At least she, after a near-death experience with a London bus or the onset of a little light drizzle, will permanently withdraw from the roads.

Apparantly, this Celia Walden thinks that near-death experiences for cyclists are a good thing which teach them a lesson. I wonder what she would tell the father of Jayne Helliwell, 25, who had a more-than-near-death experience with a bus last year (the bus driver was charged with dangerous driving after the crash).

Reading Celias article in a week where another London cyclist has been killed by a lorry is not just unsettling. It’s utterly disgusting. Until today, according to my statistics at least seven cyclists have been killed on London roads in 2011.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from a Telegraph journalist but some research before writing an article might be a nice idea. Well, I’m here to help:

Celia, do you seriously think that Barrett (he commanded a squadron in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded an Order of the British Empire), Mason ( he was “notable for his iron chin, stout heart and thunderous punching power”, according to the Telegraph) and Hawkes ( “one of Britain’s leading child protection experts”, listen to him on Radio 4 ) “have lived in a “fantasy world”?

Do you think they deseve to be loathed?

Do I deserve to be loathed?

One thing is for sure: Tom, Gary and Colin have permanently been withdrawn from the roads, if I may use your words.

Celia, I’m really shocked by your degree of callousness. I don’t understand how the editors of the “Daily Telegraph” dare to print such highly cynical stuff.

In the name of Tom Barrett, Gary Mason and Colin Hawkes (as well as all those other cyclists who have been innocently killed and injured by dodgy drivers in London) I expect a profound apology. Otherwise I would conclude that you just think they just got what they deserved.

* That’s why I’ve misspelled her first name as “Celina” in an earlier version of this article.

My spreadsheet with detailed information on fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006: http://bit.ly/cycling-london

My map showing the locations for fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006: http://bit.ly/cycle-crash-map-london

Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?

“Isn’t it dangerous?” This is the ultimate question regarding cycling in London. Almost everyone asks me this when I tell them that I get around here almost exclusively by bike. I know a significant number of people who do not cycle in London because they consider it utterly unsafe.

My standard  reply to questions on cycling safety is: “Of course it’s dangerous. As life is in general.” I then explain that if you respect certain rules (“Never ever get on the left side of  lorry” being the most important one), safety is not an issue.

Afterwards I usually rave for five minutes about the benefits of cycling. I never forget to mention that, according to studies frequently cited by the CTC, the health benefits of cycling massively outweigh the risks.

Deep inside, however, I always feel a little bit queasy because I ask myself if I’m talking  somebody into cycling who might  end up under a car….

Hence I wanted to get a deeper understanding of cycling safety in London. This is why I’ve started to collect data on severe and fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006. The results are this spreadsheet on Google Docs and this map. Currently they list 59 fatal cycling accidents that have happened in Greater London since  2006.

Collecting this information was heartbreaking and a very emotional thing. I got sad, angry and frustrated by the carelessness and ruthlessness of some drivers; the errors and callousness of city planners  and the verdicts of coroners who were at least sometimes showing an astonishing degree of leniency.

Continue reading “Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?”