On Monday the Department for Transport’s Think! campaign launched an HGV ‘safety’ campaign that has been universally panned by cycling organisations and campaigners. There’s a very good summary of the reasons why here.
The intention of the video is apparently to show the risks of ‘undertaking’ HGVs when they are about turn. But the video itself is, frankly, a mess. It initially shows an implausible situation – a lorry travelling on the wrong side of the road on a 20mph street, with a cyclist somehow managing to travel even faster on their inside.
Why is the lorry right over on the wrong side of the road, so far from the junction? I can’t think of any reasonable explanation. Most likely the driver has started to overtake the person cycling, who has then implausibly managed to accelerate and move ahead of the HGV.
This is followed by a shot, accompanied by tasteless clips of meat being chopped, of the HGV swerving across that cyclist’s path, with the cyclist still behind the HGV – which is implausible in the context of the speed difference in the (very odd) first clip.
So why is this video so implausible?
An instinctive explanation is that it is simply a cock-up, filmed by people who don’t really know how left hook incidents actually occur. The brief might have been
‘Go and make us a video of an idiot cyclist shooting up the inside of a turning HGV at speed.’
The result being this dog’s breakfast. But I think there’s more to it than that. A video that showed how left hooks actually occur would be embarrassing to the DfT.
They don’t involve lorries travelling at speed on the wrong side of the road with someone apparently attempting to ‘undertake’ them.
Instead, they occur when a previously stationary HGV has just started to move off at a junction. When someone cycling is either positioned in front of, or to the side, of that HGV, typically on state-sanctioned paint, either in the form of a crap cycle-lane, or an advanced stop line (ASL). That cyclist is either stationary in that ASL, or is arriving at the junction on the cycle lane on the inside of that HGV.
Conveniently, the DfT video doesn’t look anything like this. It doesn’t show someone who has been lulled into a making a minor misjudgement with potentially fatal consequences, thanks to negligent road design. Instead it attempts to present a scenario in which blame lies with a cyclist being an idiot, ‘racing’ an HGV and trying to shoot up the inside of it as it turns.
I commented yesterday that this Cemex video – shot from a camera on the left hand side of the lorry cab – is far more instructive about how left hooks actually occur than the DfT’s video. It’s a real-life illustration of how a combination of dreadful road design, lethal vehicles and momentary inattention can lead to death and serious injury.
At the start of the video, we see the HGV is stationary as the man cycles past it, towards the junction.
Going by the position of the cab, adjacent to a metal post, the front of the lorry is approximately 50m or so from the junction, suggesting that there are at least five cars (or equivalent) ahead of it, waiting at a red light.
The lorry driver isn’t indicating left at this point.
It might be foolish to start filtering up the inside of an HGV here, but a combination of the the fact that the traffic is stationary, that the HGV is some distance back from the lights, and the inviting cycle lane (combined with a lack of indication) all make it completely understandable.
However, as the cyclist draws level with the cab, the HGV moves off.
And then, about a second after moving off, the driver starts to indicate left.
It seems the cyclist, perhaps without even seeing the indicators, realises that he is suddenly in a precarious situation – you can see him accelerating to try and clear the HGV, to get to safety ahead of it. This is clearly not a wise decision; the best one would have been to a complete halt, to simply let the HGV go. But it’s an understandable human mistake.
The HGV driver is accelerating hard too, and soon the cyclist is back down the side of the HGV. From this point, given the speed of both parties and their intended directions, disaster is nearly inevitable.
Abruptly, the enormous lorry forms a curved barrier around the cyclist, leaving him with nowhere to go.
It is only thanks to both parties performing an emergency stop that the cyclist doesn’t end up under the wheels.
I hope it is clear that this real-life situation is rather more ambiguous than the one in the DfT video. Mistakes are made, but they are understandable ones. Particularly, can we expect people not to cycle up the inside of HGVs when there is a cycle lane there, and the HGV is stationary, some five or six cars back from the junction itself?
And much the same is true of incidents that are actually in the news at the moment, in the wake of the DfT’s campaign. Take the case of Louise Wright, killed in Nottingham in July 2014. She appears to have filtered up the inside of an HGV, and then waited at a red light, next to it. The driver failed to check his mirrors, and was convicted this week of causing death by careless driving – the same day that the DfT campaign launched.
Or, also in the courts this week, the case of Esther Hartsilver, again killed as a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
Or the case of Ying Tao, again, killed as a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
These cases simply do not resemble the DfT’s video. They take place almost in slow motion, the inevitable consequences of human beings making understandable mistakes in an environment why are exposed to unacceptable danger; an environment where those mistakes can, in a split second, lead to death and serious injury. Environments that even actually encourage them into danger.
We should be building environments that greatly reduce or even remove that danger. Environments that keep people cycling and HGVs separated from each other, and allow people to make mistakes without those mistakes resulting in death.
Thankfully, we are starting to see this kind of approach in a small number of locations in London; new junctions where the risk of collision between HGVs and people has been greatly reduced by signal separation of movements.
But this is only a start, and in just one city.
I see little or no indication that the same Department for Transport that is producing these videos and adverts is taking any kind of lead on safe design. Where are the national standards, guidance and advice for local authorities, so that they can replicate good examples and best practice at a local level? Where is the investment required, to reshape our roads to protect people using the modes of transport we apparently want to encourage? Frankly, where is the leadership? It’s completely absent.
The simple message of the cases mentioned here, and countless others, is – do not mix very heavy, large vehicles with limited visibility with people on bikes. Keep them separated at all costs. But, again, I see no indication that the Department for Transport is taking that message on board. The issue of cycling death as a result of collisions with HGVs continues to be framed by those with responsibility for tackling it – as with this latest campaign – as one of human failing, one of mistakes that can be remedied through ‘education’ and ‘awareness’. A totally flawed approach given that human beings will always continue to make mistakes. It’s what we do.
Beyond adverts and tokenistic measures like extra mirrors, there is no noticeable action being taken at an institutional level within the DfT to deal with these predictable deaths, that keep occurring in the same way, over and over again. That’s why these adverts are so deeply insulting.