I’ve been driving for nearly 18 years. I’ve driven in cities, down country roads, on motorways, in unfamiliar places and in different countries. I’ve been a car commuter. I have no idea how many miles that is, but out of those 18 years I’d be interested to know whether my hours driving runs into weeks, months or even years. Having said that, I wouldn’t say I’m exceptionally experienced at driving. I’m not a sales person racking up hundreds of miles every week. I’m not a courier or a delivery driver. I’m not a long distance lorry driver. These people, in my mind, spend best part of their working day behind a steering wheel. They have significantly more experience of driving than me.
If we look at lorry drivers, who not only have a lot of experience driving, but also have had additional training, the incidence of collisions with cyclists is high. ROSPA state that around 20% of cycling fatalities in London involve an HGV. Another review of incident data in London showed that lorries were involved in 43% of all deaths over a 14 year period. Of course, this high representation in cycling deaths is likely to be because the consequences of any collision between a lorry and a cyclist are damaging; with bike vs lorry there is a high probability that the cyclist won’t be walking away merely bruised. However, considering the experience of lorry drivers, what factors might contribute to collisions involving lorries and bikes?
In a car you are visually on the same level as the rest of the traffic, bikes being no exception. Of course this doesn’t mean no accidents ever happen. I would think that you are more likely to have the opportunity to see a bike from a car as a bike is at your eye level, and if it’s too late to avoid a collision this would still make it more likely that you are able to take evasive action. Similarly a cyclist can see whether you are looking at them, might even make eye contact, and this gives them an opportunity to change their behaviour too in order to avoid a collision.
The perspective of a lorry driver is very different. They are much higher than a cyclist, and less likely to see them. The size of the vehicle means that they have restricted visibility of the area around them, and so cyclists can easily fall into a blind spot. Even with additional mirrors there will be areas that cannot be seen, and of course a cyclist has less chance of seeing the driver, less chance of making eye contact and making a judgement about how they might need to cycle. I believe that driving any vehicle safely is to some degree dependent on judging other drivers behaviour, assuming that they are aware of the same fundamental rules of the road as you are.
Considering the more dangerous combination of lorry and bike, I was saddened, but not surprised to read about a cyclist being knocked off her bike by a lorry in Hilsea. In this instance I think the road design may have contributed to accident, because it requires traffic to turn across the path of the buses, and cyclists on their left. The stretch of road in question is one that I drive through quite regularly, and this particular design is one that has been adopted on other roads around the Hilsea roundabout.
The first time I experienced this road design was when I was driving southbound onto the Hilsea roundabout from Cosham, where unusually I was turning left onto the A27 towards Chichester. I pulled up at the junction just as a bus did to my left. This completely went against my instinct as a driver to be waiting to turn left across the face of traffic going straight ahead. It made me feel uncomfortable and uncertain as to how I should continue. I waited, the bus went straight on, and I went on my way. Apparently this was the right thing to do as stated in Highway Code 183 “give way to any vehicles using a bus lane, cycle lane or tramway from either direction”.
The red line represents cars turning left onto the M27 eastbound, the blue arrow represents buses going straight on, southwards into Portsmouth (map from Google Maps)
A similar design has been adopted going northbound towards the Hilsea roundabout, at the junction with Northern Parade, where the lorry hit the bike. However, there is an important difference. When going southbound to the Hilsea roundabout (picture above) traffic in both the carriageway and in the bus and cycle lane comes to a double dashed give way line, so traffic would be preparing to come to a stop and to give way to other traffic; conversely, going northbound (picture below) the design is adopted at a left hand filter, with no obvious give way either for traffic turning left, or for traffic in the bus and cycle lane.
This ariel image is a little dated, but it still demonstrates how traffic turning left from the main carriageway (red arrow) cuts across the traffic in the bus and cycle lane (blue arrow) (map from Google Maps)
As the image above shows, traffic turning into Northern Parade cuts across the bus and cycle lane, and although those in the bus and cycle lane have priority the road design is, at best, ambiguous. The red tarmac of the bus and cycle lane is cut short, and the grey tarmac streams across elegantly from the main carriageway where there is a great big arrow indicating straight on and left. Apart from there being no give way signs, the road design itself does nothing to suggest that traffic turning left should give way to vehicles using the bus and cycle lane (Highway Code 183), in fact it implies the opposite. So, in my mind the road design played a significant part in this accident.
You can see the bus and cycle lane is interrupted by the grey tarmac of the main carriageway. Note the writing on the road only says ‘bus’ lane (image from Google Maps)
However, as with many accidents there are a variety of contributory factors, and I doubt this is an exception. Let’s think about the road junction from a lorry driver’s perspective. I can only imagine that a bus is more likely to be seen than a bike, if we simply consider its size alone. Also, the visibility of a bike at this point would be made even more difficult as the lorry driver needs to look behind them to see any cyclist. All this whilst navigating a left turn filter that could itself be challenging to navigate with a larger vehicle. So this road design when combined with a lorry might be particularly problematic.
Another factor might be the frequent congestion on this stretch of road, where traffic can back up for some way. Lorry drivers, like any other driver come to that, sat in this traffic waiting to turn left might have been stationary or slow moving for some time. I wonder how easy it is for them to be fixated with the slowly approaching junction? A cyclist on the other hand is not bound by the frustration of sitting in traffic and could be travelling at quite some speed up the bus and cycle lane. You can see where I’m going with this. Lorry driver finally makes the junction which offers a clear piece of road and turns into it, the cyclist is merrily on their way northbound, accident happens. Not so funnily enough the accident occurred at 7.30am, a prime time for congestion.
Providing information to road users is not only important, it is a legal requirement, and bus and cycle lane signs are no exception. However, such information is notably absent at this point in the road as there are no blue rectangular signs, required by law, to offer an additional warning to drivers to expect to see cyclists coming along on the inside. However, I doubt that an additional piece of road furniture would mitigate against this road design. Rather I think the omission of signs is a real indication of the position cycling has within the hierarchy of importance locally. I wonder, would simply continuing the red tarmac of the bus and cycle lane provide a more prominent visual cue to drivers that they are now crossing the path of other traffic and need to give way?
My last thought on contributory factors is more general. When we look around we don’t see that many cyclists on the roads, and I do wonder whether drivers don’t anticipate them, and therefore do not account for them appropriately. Are we in a Catch 22 where fewer cyclists means drivers are less likely to look for them, so collisions are more likely, therefore cycling is seen as being risky, therefore there are fewer cyclists? Is there a critical point where the number of cyclists (or the ratio of cyclists to motor vehicles) reaches a particular level where cycling is viewed as safe, and non-cyclists are more encouraged to take to the roads?
My idle ramblings about contributory factors are neither here nor there. Officially the accident at Hilsea was reported as being a consequence of a poor turn or manoeuvre by the HGV. I find this disappointing. By simply pointing the finger at the HGV driver nothing changes. The environment in which the accident happened will remain: lack of bus and cycle lane signs, poor road design, no give way markings. Is this really a satisfactory solution, and can we look at the junction with confidence that such an accident couldn’t happen again?
The accident at Hilsea could so easily have resulted in a fatality. When collisions occur that involve experienced and trained road users we need to question why; and if the vision for more sustainable transportation is to be achieved, we need to consider whether we can expect people to get on their bikes when road design puts cyclists directly in the path of HGV’s.