The Department for Transport needs to show leadership on safe junction design, instead of blaming victims

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.screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-12-45-34

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.

I’m grateful to Al__S for spotting the location of this video; it’s at a junction in Fulham.

The location of the Cemex incident, looking towards the arm of the junction where both cyclist and HGV approached

The location of the Cemex incident, looking towards the arm of the junction where both cyclist and HGV approached

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 approximate position of the lorry cab, with the same metal post on the left

The approximate position of the lorry cab, with the same metal post on the left

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.
screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-19-47-32And 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.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-19-49-35

Abruptly, the enormous lorry forms a curved barrier around the cyclist, leaving him with nowhere to go.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-19-50-36

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.

A Utrecht main road, where people cycling are insulated from lorry danger

A Utrecht main road, where people cycling are insulated from lorry danger

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.

The junction of Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars in London. Signal separation means little or no risk of left hooks; safe enough for young children.

The junction of Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars in London. Signal separation means little or no risk of left hooks; safe enough for young children.

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.


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10 Responses to The Department for Transport needs to show leadership on safe junction design, instead of blaming victims

  1. The only solution to this is ‘sustainable safety’. This is the approach taken by the Dutch, which makes road and street environments ‘forgiving’ of human error. Because how ever skilled, good and careful the driver or the cyclist, or indeed the pedestrian, each is only human. Making a mistake should not result in a death sentence. Or (some might argue worse) a permanent disability.

    And whilst streets and roads are dangerous places, where unlike the workplace, there is no protection from moving machinery that can kill or maim in an instant, we will be unable to tackle those other clear and present dangers: air pollution, obesity, overweight leading to diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, depression. Because people will rightly say that active travel is too unpleasant and dangerous.

    The phrase and need for Health and Safety to be applied to our road network via sustainable safety and road danger reduction could not be more appropriate.

  2. Bmblbzzz says:

    The video itself is overly complex rather than misdirected IMO. All those falling pianos and head-butting goats (are they sheep?) are an attempt at “art” which distracts from the message and disjoints it to near meaninglessness. But once you manage to discard that and read the inherent message, it makes sense. In fact, the Cemex video of the real life left-hook gives the exact same message: hang back, don’t go up the inside. Even if the lorry or coach is not indicating.

    Saying that left-hooks don’t actually happen when a cyclist overtakes a lorry seems to be true but is disproved by the Cemex video. We see a cyclist overtaking a stationary HGV. If he’d got there half a second earlier he’d probably have been in front of it when it started moving (and probably in an even more dangerous position in the blind zone in front of the cab, but HGV design, though important, is not the point here). And anyone who rides (or walks or drives) in traffic surely sees this happening every day. People do it for lots of reasons, from ignorance of the danger to a judgement that they’ve got away with it many times before so the slight risk is better than being late to work. Road layouts and magic paint are definitely an incitement, perhaps in a way a hangover from the good old bad old days when convenience and journey times were officially rated above safety, but people have always done this, even before there were any cycle lanes. Which isn’t to excuse them, just to point out their role is perhaps not so straightforward. The DfT video attempts, clumsily, to inform cyclists of the danger and get them to reassess their priorities. There is another one aimed at drivers, but it’s very dull and has no Vivaldi – no soundtrack at all, in fact.

    That said, when it comes to the solutions, I’m with you. Don’t see anything else working. More mirrors, lower cabs, bleepers and stuff all might mitigate but people will still act in the same ways. In a sense, the DfT is trying with this video to reach that same goal – avoiding the accident by removing the situation – on the cheap, ie videos cost a lot less than building and if they achieved the desired behavioural change – in both bike and motor vehicle operators – then the job would be done. But they certainly won’t.

  3. Jitensha Oni says:

    Anecdote. Straight road. No oncoming traffic. Me cycling. HGV overtakes and pulls sharply in so I have to swerve and brake. I asked the driver why he did that, when stopped at the next lights – his answer: “I got in front, you have to give way.” He meant himself and possibly his cab getting in front – he certainly wasn’t keeping his full vehicle in mind. I fear videos like the one here only increase the likelihood of such attitude taking hold more generally, particularly among the drivers of the type of trucks shown in the video and smaller. That’s why these adverts are, I feel, more than insulting.

    • HivemindX says:

      There is no risk involved to the truck driver when they perform a manoeuvre like this and videos like this attempt to remove any responsibility too. Is it any wonder that drivers act the way they do in your story? If the positions were reversed and the truck driver engaging in such dangerous driving was the one in danger of being severely injured I am certain he would have acted very differently.

      The video which attempts to show that trucks have a three lane wide death zone all around them are the same. The underlying assumption is that if you go anywhere near a truck on a bicycle whatever happens to you is your own fault. Solutions like removing the death zone via mirrors or cameras or automated sensors or removing such apparently deadly vehicles from proximity to vulnerable road users are never seriously considered.

      If people were being killed by dogs in the street we wouldn’t have videos showing the 3 metre attack zone that people should aware of or ones showing how people who went too close to a dog brought it on themselves. We wouldn’t have people in comments saying how people need to learn to avoid dogs and if there’s a dog owner in the shop you should just wait patiently outside until they move away. We would, and do, have laws mandating muzzles for certain types of dogs and owners can be held responsible if they fail to control their animals correctly. We also have outrage in the media about dangerous dog breeds and not a whisper of victim blaming (“they went too close” or “they weren’t even wearing anti-bite armour”)..

  4. says:

    I struggle to comprehend how it is legal for a vehicle to be allowed on the roads with such an expanse of ‘blind spots’. Especially when that vehicle is the size and weight it is and with the limited manoeuvrability it has. It is not a complicated solution to ensure manufacturers fit additional cameras or mirrors. I know that still leaves the issue of the driver taking responsibility and looking in them but it would be a start at least.
    The issue of left hook injuries CAN be caused by a cyclist riding up the inside of an HGV, as you say more often than not when a cycle lane is present, but they also occur when an HGV simply overtakes a cyclist and then turns left across them – expecting the cyclist to come to an abrupt halt as soon as the indicators have been turned on.

  5. rdrf says:

    On the issue of what a “blind spot” is see .

    IMO there are issues about HGV design, not just drivers being able to see what is near the vehicle (including pedestrians who you don’t mention) but the unnecessarily large gap between tarmac and HGV body which makes the injuries especially severe as the victim is crushed.

  6. Stephen Kemp says:

    The dangerous dog analogy is an interesting one. If the dog was snarling and foaming at the mouth I would keep my distance – that would surely be common sense, right? So why not treat all HGVs as angry dogs and avoid putting yourself in a dangerous position? The issue, as mentioned already, is that sometimes our delightful cycling infrastructure encourages us (especially less experienced, attentive or assertive cyclists) to put ourselves in dangerous positions.

    • pm says:

      But the video sequence in the article itself demonstrates why that ‘keeping your distance’ is a difficult thing to achieve. Just as its not always possible to ‘keep your distance’ from a dangerous dog.

      People do get attacked by dangerous dogs, after all (I had an out-of-control mutt chase me across a park while barknig furiously just yesterday night, its owner several hundred yards away shouting ineffectually – at his dog, it turned out, though I wasn’t sure at first whether it was me he was swearing at).

      Talking about ‘putting yourself in a dangerous position’ is worryingly close to victim-blaming. The only way to not put yourself in a dangerous position is to not cycle on our roads. Just as the only way I can keep my distance from dangerous dogs is to never go into the parks round here.

  7. Frank says:

    One aspect that is often overlooked is the point of view of the cyclist in these situations. According to the Predictability principle in Sustainable Safety, road users should be able to predict the behavior of other road users. This also applies to cyclists trying to predict the behavior and direction of cars.

    Now, if a cycle path or lane is close to the car lane (or missing at all) it is nearly impossible for a cyclist to predict if a car or lorry will initiate a turn until the turn is started. But then it might already be too late. The cyclist is not aware of the turning and cannot react accordingly. Here’s a video showing an accident happening like this:

    This situation is taken care of in the design of a Proteced Intersection by moving the cycle path farther away from the cars. Even with turn lights off the behaviour of a car is easy to predict and a cyclist can stop to save his life in a pinch if the car drivers seems to be unheeding.

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