As a cyclist, it’s hard not to brood on Rebecca Goosen’s death. The 29-year-old architect was cycling to work down Old Street last April when she was crushed by a 32-tonne cement mixer turning left into Goswell Road.
Ms Goosen was one of 13 cyclists killed on London’s roads last year, nine of them, like her, by lorries turning left. In 2008, 445 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the capital. It’s probably the biggest single reason why more people don’t travel by bike.
In fact, cycling in London is getting safer. The number killed or seriously injured last year was more than 20 per cent down on the average between 1994 and 1998, despite the fact that the number of daily bicycle journeys on London’s major roads has roughly doubled since 2000.
But much more needs to be done to make cycling safer. It is partly a question of better training for cyclists: TfL funds free training, and later this week we’ll be trying out courses.
Women suffer disproportionately among those killed: some experts speculate it is because they tend to be less assertive riders than men.
The danger from lorries looms large. In recent years new laws have required them to have extra mirrors. Some companies such as cement producer Cemex have taken a lead, fitting all their trucks with warning signs, proximity sensors that trigger an audible warning, and video cameras to cover blind spots.
But those are not the norm. There are still mirror exemptions for certain construction vehicles, while some operators flout the law. In hot pursuit is the Metropolitan Police’s Commercial Vehicle Education Unit (CVEU). This team conducts spot checks on roadsides. Officers say it’s largely instinct — “copper’s nose” — that leads them to target particular vehicles, but most are from small firms, especially skip and scaffolding operators, trying to cut corners.
For example, at one such check on Chelsea Embankment last November, 38 out of 48 lorries stopped were breaking the law, most with mechanical or tachograph offences. Officers have powers to follow up by visiting the companies to force them to comply.
The Mayor has faced criticism from campaigners for his decision last year to stop funding CVEU. It looks short-sighted. He wants operators to join his Freight Operator Recognition Scheme instead, which emphasises better safety standards and training, although it has the modest target of signing up half of HGV and van fleets in London by 2016.
But lorries turning left aren’t the only problem. Analysis by TfL shows that, for example, more serious injuries are caused to cyclists by vehicles coming towards them turning right. What’s more, in 2007, 89 per cent of accidents leaving cyclists seriously injured involved collisions with cars. And while it’s important to make lorries safer, that will not stop them being involved in accidents.
Safety is also improved by more cycle lanes. Creating new ones in London’s congested roadspace is difficult, and the Government has not committed enough funds for a major expansion across the city. Instead the Mayor is focusing on 12 new “cycle superhighways” converging on the centre from outlying boroughs.
The superhighways, which will see a cycle lane with a new blue surface laid down alongside major roads, are aimed at commuters: anyone who comes in on a road such as the A4 or A1 can testify that it’s not a pleasant experience at present.
The first two, No 3 from Barking to Tower Gate, and No 7 from Merton to City Hall, are due this summer. But some of the network, for example superhighway No 3, will add little to the existing cycle lane routes. And the network is not due to be completed until 2015 — a long wait.
In the meantime the basic advice is simple: watch your road position, ride confidently, use reflective clothing, use lights — and take special care in bus lanes and around lorries.
Changing places on the road
HGV drivers’ Cycle awareness
HGV drivers and bicycles don’t marry well together. To bridge the divide Lambeth council has joined with its waste management contractor to create cycling awareness training for lorry drivers, with time in the classroom plus
off- and on-road sessions.
As I trundle around Brixton depot car park with two recycling truck drivers, it’s clear just how unfamiliar they are with two wheels. Both struggle with the basic good practice of switching to a low gear before stopping.
At one point Wojceich Rybko, 23, skids and slips off into a puddle. “It does give me a good idea of what problems cyclists might have,” he said.
“I hope it’s going to prevent me having an accident.” At the start of the session Leon Viorel, 42, was cursing cyclists for running red lights. By the end he said: “A lot of drivers don’t give cyclists a chance. The cyclists are disadvantaged — they don’t have mirrors, they have to turn their head to see and might lose their balance — as truck drivers we have the bigger responsibility.”
Exchanging Places safety event
According to Jason Stockham, driver for cement company Cemex, the typical response of those climbing into the cab of a cement lorry is: “Gosh, isn’t it high up in here?” That was what I said when I tried it at a safety event run by the police. You’d never know cars exist from up there, let alone bicycles.
Mr Stockham said cyclists constantly biked up the left-hand side of his truck: “If you stop at traffic lights in London, you can have 30 cyclists around you in the morning. Which do you keep an eye on?”
Police are now issuing fines to cycling rulebreakers and offering to rescind the charges if they attend safety events.
Cemex vehicles are safety-aware, with side sensors, caution signs and six mirrors to cover blind spots. But passing even these well-equipped lorries is highly dangerous. “I would absolutely ride up the left-hand side in the past. Now I would certainly try not to,” said Sarah Davies, 35, a doctor who attended the event. “To create a safer environment we all need to be insightful of the perspectives of other road users.”