London Mayor protests UK block on EU ‘safe lorries’ law

'Safe' truck computer model [Shutterstock]

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has written to the British transport minister, Stephen Hammond, protesting British opposition to "safe lorries" legislation in the European Parliament that could save hundreds of cyclists’ lives every year.

The issue captured UK press headlines after six cyclists were killed on the British capital’s roads over just one fortnight in November.

But lorry-makers are opposed to mandatory new design restrictions, and David Cameron’s administration has made curbing EU regulations a flagship issue.

“Boris Johnson has said directly to the government in the UK that he is deeply concerned at their view and attitude on this,” the mayor’s cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan told a press conference in Brussels yesterday (29 January).

“I am slightly incredulous that the government of Britain and other agencies are not on board with what ought to be a fairly non-controversial change,” Gilligan, a well-known former journalist said. He added that Johnson would fight for safe lorries "even if it means being against what his own party wants."

But Johnson has not yet raised the matter with the prime minister, EURACTIV understands.  

At issue is an amendment to the EU’s weights and dimensions directive which could bring about what the European Cyclists Federation calls a “sea change” in HGV lorry designs.

By 2020, the amendment would mandate that new lorries be given extra design space – as a Commission proposal indicates – but only on condition that this is used for safety improvements, such as:

  • Bigger windscreens for the front and sides of lorries
  • A deflecting ‘round nose’ to throw cyclists to the side – as happens with cars – rather than sucking them under the wheels, as happens currently
  • ‘Crumple zones’ or shock absorbers

New lorries would also need to emit 3-5% less greenhouse gases than at present from fuel efficiency improvements.

Pillar-box windscreens

Currently, lorry cabs are designed in a ‘brick’ shape that only allows drivers sight of the road through a large pillar box-style windscreen, creating blind spots beneath the lorry’s cab, and to its side. Cyclists are highly vulnerable to traffic accidents in these spaces.  

Although lorries make up around 3% of road traffic, they are responsible for around a quarter of road fatalities. Between 2008-2010, more than 7000 lives were lost across the EU, according to the European Cycling Federation.

The Federation has now formed a rainbow coalition with groups such as the International Road Transport Union (IRU), Transport and Environment, and the European Federation of Road Traffic Victims to press its case that "mirrors are not enough".

Accidents typically happened when “a lorry turns across a cyclist’s path and they go under the wheels,” the one-time British Olympics cycling champion, Chris Boardman told EURACTIV. “When you know that, you would literally be negligent if you didn’t do something about it, particularly when the measures are all very clear.”

Ironically, lorry-makers led the initial calls for action on lorry safety from Brussels. Last July, MAN’s senior manager for aerodynamic development, Stephan Kopp, said that “for several years now, we are trying to convince the European Union to allow us more freedom.”

But France and Germany are thought to be decidedly unenthusiastic about the legislation, under pressure from lorry manufacturers such as Renault and Daimler.

British foot-dragging

The UK has also dragged its feet on the issue. A UK briefing document, seen by EURACTIV, says that “whilst we support improvements to [lorry] cab design to improve fuel efficiency and carbon emissions and road safety for vulnerable road users, any mandatory requirement for cabs to have a new profile should be supported by an impact assessment. As far as we are aware, there is no impact assessment to support such a change.”

The Liberal MEP Phil Bennion said that while the Commission had rushed out its proposal, the objection was “technical rather than substantive.”

Lorry manufacturer’s contentions that they were improving braking systems, was “welcome, but no reason not to have other improvements,” he added.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) has called for a moratorium of 15 years on new EU lorry design regulations because “redesigning the cab is an extremely complex exercise that requires development time,” and the product lifecycle of a cab is 15 years on average.

According to Bennion, a "workable compromise" in the Parliament transport committee was still possible but “we don’t want to wait for this to be brought in until 2029.”

'The wire'

The date the legislation became mandatory would “go to the wire” and be one of the last matters decided, he said.

Boardman, a record-breaking cyclist and three-times Tour de France ‘yellow jersey’ wearer pointed out that, as well as saving lives in the short term, making cycling safer would help the environment.  

“If we reduce the death toll on the roads it would encourages more people to get around by using sustainable transport – cycling,” he said.

“The unintended consequence of this would be safer, more ecologically-friendly transport. I am really disappointed that the British government hasn’t recognised this.”

Transport & Environment's policy officer, William Todts, said: “This declaration, signed by cities, hauliers, trade unions and environmental groups, is a unique opportunity for cleaner and safer lorries, now. We can save hundreds of lives - especially in cities - whist offering better working conditions for drivers, and lowering fuels bills and carbon emissions.”

The EU’s weights and dimensions directive was revised in 1996, but its provisions date back to the 1980s. It mandates rules that heavy goods vehicles must comply with for road safety reasons.  

The new proposals result from a Commission review of the directive’s provisions as announced in the 2011 White Paper on Transport.

The rules should be adapted to facilitate the introduction of more aerodynamic vehicles which limit CO2 emissions and energy use, and better reflect new intermodal transport standards.

  • April 2014: European Parliament rapporteur says he will bring legislation to a plenary vote

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