Parliament approves safer trucks

Truck-car accident simulation [Shutterstock]

The European Parliament voted through a proposal yesterday (15 April) that should help make trucks safer for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as reduce CO2 emissions. MEPs, however, rejected plans to allow so-called ‘mega-trucks’ across the EU, leaving the decision to member states.

606 MEPs voted in favour of the proposal. Only 75 MEPs voted against.

The amendments to the directive on the maximum weights and dimensions for lorries proposed by the European Commission, should help make trucks safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and help reduce CO2 emissions. They will also make the vehicles more comfortable for truck drivers themselves, MEPs and supporters said after the vote.

If member states approve the new legislation, new trucks (see sketch here) could become mandatory as of 2022 on European roads. The new design would signal the end of brick-shaped trucks, and introduce a more rounded aerodynamic chassis that would not only increase the driver’s field of vision, but also make collisions with pedestrians or cyclists less deadly, the European Commission said.

These new aerodynamic standards are also aimed at reducing fuel consumption, and thereby greenhouse gas emissions, by 7-10%, supporters of the legislation explained.

“A brick is the least aerodynamic shape you can imagine. That’s why we need to improve the shape of the lorries on our roads,” said Siim Kallas, the EU commissioner in charge of transport. “These changes make road transport cleaner and safer. They will reduce hauliers’ fuel bills, and give European manufacturers a head-start in designing the truck of the future, a greener truck for the global market,” he added.

Lawmakers believe that the new legislation will also boost investments in research and development (R&D) for the sector by opening new opportunities for automotive companies.

According to research done by the NGO Transport and Environment (T&E), the redesign would cost between €400 and 1,500 per vehicle, on top of the cost for a new lorry, which is between €80,000 and €100,000. But the “extra purchase cost would be recouped by fuel savings within a year,” it says.

No cross-border trials for mega-trucks

The European Commission expressed disappointment, however, with the Parliament’s refusal to approve the executive’s amendments allowing extra-large vehicles across the Union.

EU lawmakers rejected the possibility for oversized trucks used in trials outside of national borders, and asked the European Commission to come up with an environmental impact study for such vehicles by 2016, before considering further steps.

The cross-border rules for longer trucks had already been subject to controversy when the legislation was proposed, with the EU executive clarifying its position to the chair of the Parliament’s transport committee in 2012.

Mega-trucks are still far from making their way on to Europe’s roads, since the legislation has yet to be negotiated with national governments, which will not happen under the current legislature.

Once the negotiations start, many stakeholders fear member states could water down the text. Truck manufacturers have asked for a moratorium on new body designs until at least 2025, in order to safeguard “competitive neutrality”. Green campaigners fear that this will “stifle competitive pressure” by allowing “lorry makers to move all at the same time”.

T&E has accused the UK, Italy and France of blocking the EU’s efforts to move on the new legislation because of “industry-vested interests”.

The issue has been particularly acute in the UK, where six cyclists were killed last November in just two weeks.

>> Read also: “London mayor protests UK block on EU “safe lorries law”

Today’s vote was hailed by the Britain’s Liberal Democrats, whose shadow rapporteur in the ALDE group, Phil Bennion, had pushed for the changes, and met with a number of safety campaigners over the issue.

“Today’s huge majority for change is a victory for all the campaigners who have worked so hard to bring about these life-saving changes to lorry design,” Bennion wrote in a press release following the vote in plenary. “This vote shows that when individuals engage with MEPs and the European Parliament, they can affect the outcome and bring about positive change,” he said.

Ministers will now have to come up with their own position, possibly by June, after which negotiations with Parliament will take place, in order to decide on the issue of making the new trucks mandatory, or optional.

Once adopted, the new legislation could be implemented within five to six years, the Commission hopes.

Siim Kallas, the EU commissioner in charge of transport, said: "I am pleased with this vote which supports the Commission's goal to make road transport cleaner and safer, allowing innovative designs for the greener trucks of the future.” But Kallas added that “the Commission cannot agree with certain points of the EP position". These include:

  • an amendment that would limit the extension of aerodynamic rear devices to 500mm (which is already authorised today and which would deprive the society of the benefits of longer devices further reducing fuel consumption and emissions) and
  • amendments that reject the broad definition of "intermodal transport" proposed by the Commission, which takes into account the evolution of container trade.

The European Parliament decided not to amend the current rules on the cross border operation of longer vehicles and asks the Commission to report on the subject by 2016.

The group of the Greens/ European Free Alliance said: "MEPs have today voted to put the brakes on this proposal to give the go-ahead to the cross-border transport of gigaliners. This legislative review should never have been used to legalise the cross-border use of gigaliners and MEPs have today confirmed this. However, it only buys a little time for ensuring a more responsible approach to this revision of EU rules on trucks. According to today's vote, the European Commission is tasked to deliver the missing impact assessment of cross-border trips from these controversial monster trucks before re-tabling any such proposal.”

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) said: “Today's vote is a victory for all the campaigners who have worked so hard to bring about these life-saving changes to lorry design. This shows that when individuals engage with MEPs and the EU they can affect the outcome and bring about positive change. With today's strong backing from the European Parliament I am confident that we can push these reforms through in negotiations with national governments later this year."

The British Conservatives in the European Parliament also welcomed the vote: "Too many cyclists and pedestrians have died on our roads already because the design of trucks left them invisible to the driver. These are the most vulnerable people on the road, but they have been overlooked in every sense of the word – with tragic consequences. This has to stop and I believe today's vote will be key to addressing this tragic problem."

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) said it was "pleased" with the vote. "This brings Europe closer to safer, more environmentally friendly trucks and coaches on the EU’s roads and a more efficient future transport system.”

The European Transport Safety Council said: "This legislation is a step forward because it will enable innovative new designs that include crumple zones along with better visibility and protection of car occupants, pedestrians and cyclists. But the Parliament should remain vigilant and ensure that these safety requirements don't get watered down in negotiations with Member States or by the working groups that work out the technical details of the new rules."

The NGO Transport and Environment said in a press release: “With today’s vote the European Parliament has taken citizens’ safety to heart. Thousands of lives are sadly lost and many more victims are severely injured in lorry crashes every year. Rounded, streamlined lorry cabs could help avoid hundreds of these deaths and injuries. The EU governments have a moral obligation to embrace this hugely beneficial decision. Weakening, delaying or blocking this decision would be unforgivable.”

The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) welcomed the outcome of the vote: “The Parliament vote is good news from a transport and from an environmental viewpoint. The more you open the door to megatrucks, the more freight will shift away from sustainable transport modes. It is necessary to invest in rail freight, as the EU shows in the recently adopted Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) budget, to achieve the EU’s overall targets in transport policy: reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and decreased dependency on oil.”

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 European 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.

  • June 2014: Council expected to give its position on the legislation
  • 2016: Commission to report back to Parliament on the issue of cross-border operation of longer vehicles

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