Boris, Brexit and better trucks

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Boris Johnson was a late convert to the Leave campaign. Critics charge he hijacked it to take over the Conservative Party from David Cameron. [Tom Page/Flickr]

London Mayor Boris Johnson wants the UK to take back control of truck design to improve road safety, but the UK will gain nothing by leaving the EU, writes Jos Dings.

Jos Dings is the executive director of the sustainable transport group at Transport & Environment.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, says Brexit will bring better trucks. It’s not just alliteration – he is on the record as using EU truck size rules as a reason to join the ‘Leave’ camp for the UK’s June 23 EU referendum. He said:

“Sometimes [EU rules] can be truly infuriating – like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.”

He went even further in a TV interview this week, saying:

“The government wanted to back it. We couldn’t get it done basically because that decision is taken at a European level… There is such a proposal to have safer cabs so that drivers can see vulnerable road users but it’s currently blocked in the transport ministers’ council by France and by other countries because they’re protecting the interests of their manufacturers.”

T&E has a long history on the subject, and received great support from the London Mayor and Greater London Authority to make trucks in Europe smarter. But Boris’ statement is only half right; it wasn’t just the French that delayed the introduction of better trucks, it was his own government too. And more importantly, by a Brexit the UK would cease to have any influence on rules like the new European directive to make trucks better.

European trucks look like bricks – flat front, flat back. This is both very dangerous and inefficient. The flat fronts mean trucks have enormous blind spots, no crumple zones, and they run over everything that get in their way. They also have very poor aerodynamics. That’s why we set out to change this, through allowing truck cabins to be slightly (80cm) longer, rounder and with a soft nose.

Our campaign, backed by London and hauliers, among others, was a success. In 2015, Europe adopted a law allowing longer cabin noses. However, the truck makers, helped by France, Sweden, Italy, and the UK, industry lobbied to delay their introduction for at least a decade. It was astonishing; what industry would forego a voluntary opportunity to make its products safer and better for its customers? A cartel maybe? Boris tried hard to make his own government change its mind; together with the insistence of the European Parliament, the moratorium was limited to three years in the final deal. Still it effectively means we’ll not see these better trucks on Europe’s roads until after 2020 – as Johnson says.

The example is typical of EU legislation in which industry, supported by national governments, water down legislation to protect consumers, workers and the environment in the face of opposition from elected MEPs. A Brexit would mean the UK government would not be at the table in these negotiations and no UK MEPs would be either. The UK would still have to abide by the EU rules for its trucks to be useable across the Channel, and it would also have to accept the new truck design on its own roads. For business and consumers, one set of EU rules for trucks means lower costs. A small but timely example of why EU regulations work.

The fight for better trucks is not yet over. Europe still needs to adopt the crucial direct vision, crash, and cyclist safety rules for better cabs. And that would happen in the review of the General Safety Regulations that ensure new vehicles on Europe’s roads are safe – irrespective of where they are built.

The sad but honest reality is that the UK government cares much more about reducing EU regulation than about better trucks. Chancellor George Osborne recently applauded the 80% cut in new EU initiatives, and the UK is pressing for even less action. In the fervour surrounding Brexit the Commission has been unwilling to commit to new rules and without these, better trucks will remain nothing more than sketches.

If we want safer and better products, less air pollution and climate change, we need positive laws at EU level, not less regulation. Local laws won’t cut it, even if we assume that the UK, or London alone, is able to break massive industry resistance against a patchwork of rules. Boris knows all this too, of course; he has been an effective advocate.

The follow-up is straightforward: the Commission should speed up its proposal for a new General Safety Regulation. It won’t change Boris’ mind. But it will prove that Europe can still do the right and obvious thing. And London’s cyclists would be a lot safer.