Friday, 25 October 2013

Think Of The Other Fella*

you don't need me to explain the risks of cycling around lorries, but how many cyclists have driven lorries? How many lorry drivers have ridden bikes? How many highway designers have cycled and driven lorries?

I recently went feral and drove a lorry, but it was for a good cause!  I had a 7.5 tonne lorry to shift a load of furniture from a closing down office to a local school. Not as big or as heavy as an articulated lorry or a grab lorry, but an awfully lot bigger and heavier than my bike!

I drove an Iveco Eurocargo, pretty much like the one below. The only additional feature was a mirror at the top of the windscreen so one can see what is immediately in front of the cab. This lorry and models like it are ubiquitous on our roads as delivery trucks and contractor's lorries.

Iveco Eurocargo. 2.4 metres wide (rear box width; plus mirrors),
about 8 metres long and with a 4 litre diesel engine, this is 
very different to driving a car, or riding a bike. 
Image from Auto Trader website.
A quirk of UK licencing history means that because I passed my driving test before January 1997, I am allowed to drive a rigid, 2-axle lorry up to 8.25 tonnes (Class C1). The law was changed in 1997 to require people wishing to driver larger vehicles to have passed additional driving tests in a bid to make sure that a minimum standard has been reached before letting people loose.

I digress. Driving a lorry is a real eye opener as a both a highway engineer and a person who cycles. I have driven this kind of lorry quite a few times, but I treated it as a learning experience as I got to drive on some main roads, back streets (to get to the school), a trunk road and even a motorway!

With a car, you pretty much have wheels at each corner and you sit behind the front wheels; with this type of lorry, the front wheels are a bit in from the corners, but you sit above them. The rear wheels are well short of the back of the vehicle and so there is an overhang of nearly 2 metres. This arrangement means that although the lorry is very manoeuvrable (with a good steering lock), the rear body overhang is an issue whenever you make any tight turns. I of course had the help from power steering and air-brakes, but the 5-speed gear box was manual and the heavy clutch pedal was hard work.

Of course, as well as the rear overhang, the front and rear axles are much further apart from each other than a car and so tight turns are much more difficult, requiring them to be taken much wider. When tightly turning left, you need to make sure you are well away from the nearside kerb, or you will mount the footway and hit anyone standing there. When turning right, you need to make sure that the rear of the vehicle doesn't hit anything because of the overhang - you especially need to be careful that the overhang doesn't "track" over the footway because of the risk to pedestrians and the potential to clout lamp columns!

When pulling out of a narrow access gate (such as at the school), both left and right turns are a pain because of the overhang; the lorry needs to be pretty much clear before you turn, or the gate posts get whacked. Pulling in parallel to the the kerb is pretty simple, but you need to be careful that you don't get too close to another vehicle parked in front, because pulling out means a tight turn and that back ends swings over the footway again - it is the same for buses, they need plenty of kerb-side to get in tight to the kerb and plenty to get out again.

Driving along, you are very aware of how tight those narrow multiple lanes are when approaching traffic signals. Narrow multiple lanes are there for stuffing vehicles through the junction and not for the comfort of lorry and bus drivers! With a lorry 2.4 metres wide and many lanes being down to 2.8 metres, there is not much to play with. When turning, you need to straddle the lanes to stop people over or undertaking because any vehicles near the rear of the lorry will get hit by the swinging of the body overhang. Pedestrian refuges and traffic islands are a little easier to pass as they are normally set to at least 3 metres in width, but at junctions, they are another thing you are trying not to hit.

On my outing, I did come across a few people on bikes. Although I came across them on main roads with a bit of space; overtaking properly really does need planning as you need to be well out from the person on the bike, with enough time to get well past them before pulling back in.

The London Cycling Campaign's Safer Urban Lorry concept includes
a lower driving position and bus-like glazed doors so that the driver
has a better all-round view, especially, the nearside blind spot.
Image from London Cycling Campaign.
Despite all of the mirrors (one main each side; one lower, very convex each side and one very convex at the top of the windscreen), there are blind spots. The front left corner is a a place where you can struggle to see what is going on and the advice about taking extreme care cycling up the inside of a lorry is well given. I found myself using the mirrors far more than I do with a car and this is a symptom of driving a wide vehicle with not much room to play with - you need to keep an eye on things all round. It would be very easy for someone to pass up your inside and get hidden in this blind spot while you are looking in the right hand mirrors. 

The other main blind spot is of course the rear. Being 6 metres or so long and rather wide you really cannot see a vehicle right behind you! I had to reverse several times to get in the right position for loading/ unloading and luckily, I had two people with me to act as banksmen. It made life so much easier when there are other sets of eyes, but of course, most people driving these lorries have no help when needing to reverse.

The final thing to say about the experience is that many car drivers are utterly oblivious to just the space needed around a large vehicle, including stopping distance. For example, I was on a dual carriageway doing just under 40mph, but still accelerating. Clearly I was not accelerating quickly enough for the idiot in the crew-cab pick-up who pulled round me into the outside lane and then back in front, on his brakes as he turned left up a side road. He obviously had no idea that I needed quite a lot of road to slow down. There is also the lemmings that appeared when I straddled lanes to turn left. They still had to creep up the outside which meant I had to let them pass before I could make the turn. Actually, motorway driving was the most comfortable and with a speed limiter (56 mph), it was almost relaxing - large roads for large vehicles!

Lorry swept path. The red lines are the tracks the wheels follow and
the green lines is the outside edge of where the vehicle body swings
as the vehicle turns - a larger envelope than the wheels because of
the overhang which is worse at the rear.
Image modified from Savoy Computing.
I get involved in all sorts of highway design for my day job and driving the lorry reminded me that these vehicles are more complex to drive than a car and that their operational envelope is far greater than their physical size. Highway engineers use swept path analysis software to test layouts for various vehicle sizes. I have covered the detail of this before, but suffice to say, those lines on the plan do mean the difference between hitting people and things or not!

As a cyclist, I am acutely aware of the visibility limitations of lorries and the risks of passing on the inside (although I do it when I can judge that conditions are safe). I am also very aware that a lorry moving to the right at a junction may well be just the first part of turning left; my driving experience reinforced this fact. There is a high level of task for lorry drivers to keep aware of what is going on around them with their mirrors and we all must realise that it is possible that they may not have seen us as cyclists. Throw in Boris Johnson's rotten Trixi mirrors and many lorry drivers will have more mirrors than their eyes can cope with.

It is a sad fact that many highway engineers do not cycle and cannot possibly know how their work affects people on bikes, even when they are meant to be designing for cyclists! I am willing to make a fair bet that most highway engineers have never driven a lorry and yet layouts have been produced and are being produced which force users of both modes to share the same space. At the very least, engineers need to experience cycling; perhaps highway authorities and consultants should keep a couple of folding bikes in the office? Politicians should also get some cycling experience as they vote on schemes or sign them off.

What about lorries? Anyone with newer licences won't be able to drive them and it would be daft to go to the time and cost of getting designers trained as lorry drivers. But, I think that organisations such as Transport for London should seriously think about setting up a scheme where engineers can go and drive a lorry on a private track to get a feel of the issues as part of a training scheme; after all, they run a scheme which includes lorry driver training from a cyclist's point of view.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that of lorries and bikes sharing the same space. If they were separated, then the cyclist wouldn't be getting into a dangerous position and the lorry driver would have one less thing to worry about.

There is a interesting twist to this, though. With less young people taking up driving as time goes on, the much talked about "peak car" and a skills shortage in civil engineering, might we end up in a position where people designing highway scheme are not drivers. We will of course have standards to follow, but will this be a future experience gap?

*Yes, I mean male and female, but I was trying to be clever with the title


  1. If you think the off-tracking of your 7.5 tonne lorry was bad have a look at the tracking of a 'trial' 15.65m one.
    specifically the report on the demo

  2. A very good point. I cannot see how these things will get around local road at all!

    The report itself is at:

  3. Sharing is not the problem. Sitting high up, the one place a truck driver has no problem seeing is well in front of them. So they will be able to see a cyclist that they are approaching along the road and plan where or whether to overtake.

    Segregation is the problem. This inevitably arranges a parallel route for cyclists to approach a junction via the blind spots to the left of the truck - positively encouraging the risky wrong-side overtaking you highlight. This could be solved at traffic lights (but rarely is) by giving a separate stage for cyclists, but for priority junctions the problem is intractable.

  4. To Anonymous (from another anonymous) sorry I have to disagree. Segregation is a big part of the solution. Sharing with large lorries, in Central London for example where I live, is not acceptable. Would I let my daughter use the main roads going to school - never... would you?

    1 mistake by a lorry driver or an inexperienced cyclist results in serious injury or death. We would never tolerate this in the workplace, it is equivalent to having live electric wires exposed on people's desks. After all, if they don't touch them they will be fine, they just need training. The employer would be sued to bankruptcy under H&S. Yet on the road system similar danger is ignored.

    Segregation does, however, need to be supported by give ways at side roads for motor traffic; and seperate phases for cyclists at signals or bypass tracks. Proper infrastructure. It can be done but the political will (for restrictions on mototists) is not there, although it is growing as cycling and cycling deaths rise. It requires banning loading, taking away residents & business parking spaces, acquiring packets of land, and longer delays for motor vehicles at junctions. London must lead the way, it might not be acceptable elsewhere in the UK yet.

    As for lorries having great forward visibility... didn't you read of the recent deaths due to just this? I attend a lot of Police accident investigations and the HGV driver cannot see below his cab when he is high up. It has happened many times where a cyclist zips in front of a lorry at the lights and sits just ahead thinking they are safe. Pedestrians have been killed doing this too when crossing the road. Get in the blind spot and you are going to be run over and crushed!

  5. Nothing much for me to add to 7th Nov who I agree with. The size of lorry I am allowed to drive may have the seating position high, but this in itself contributes to the blind spots which I covered in my post.

    Funnily enough, I was chatting to a Met. traffic copper today. New lorries actually have 6 mirrors; the extra one has a convex mirror on the nearside door to help drivers see the nearside blink spot. The trouble is, that even with the mirrors, it is hard to see those people down by the front nearside corner.

    This is hard in a stationary lorry, so imagine the job the driver has every time s/he slows down in traffic or stops at a junction - many times each journey.

    No, keeping lorries (and through traffic) off local roads (other than for delivery access) and separation on main roads (LCC policy is now more than 2000PCU per day) is the answer. We need to rethink our highways, am utterly convinced.

  6. Would I be right in thinking that in some respects our roads have been designed so that the danger to cyclists and pedestrians from smaller vehicles such as cars has been exacerbated by engineering aimed at making them passable for very large lorries? It is quite clear, and you don't need your diagrammatic representation of swept paths to know this, that HGVs and in particular artics need a lot of road width and large radius turns or roundabouts etc. These same things however make it feasible for a car driver to safely (from his own perspective, not the pedestrian/cyclist outside his windscreen) take the road much faster than it was "designed" for, or is permitted.

    This is just one aspect of road design which positively encourages illegal speeding or manoeuvres - unnecessarily wide roads with broad central medians or hatched lines down the middle give the impression that the road is "faster" than it is supposed to be.

    Sort of slightly on that point, I was impressed by the apparent willingness of Northamptonshire to downgrade roads in order to reduce the costs of maintaining them - reducing road widths from two lanes to a single lane with passing places, or even closing them to motor traffic altogether, so that they can be maintained at lower cost. They don't explicitly mention that they are aiming to suppress motor use, or indeed to promote walking and cycling, but you get the sense that they might actually have that in mind.

    1. Manual for Streets has lots on this (P78 onwards);

      You are spot on. There are roads even deep within residential areas which have been designed for the largest vehicles likely to use them - removal trucks, perhaps every couple of years or so?

      For the 99.9% rest of the time, these wide roads, with very wide junctions allow drivers of small vehicles (cars) to speed - the wide junctions are particularly an issue because is allows drivers to turn left and right without slowing down.

      For normal use, there is nothing wrong with a refuse truck driver or a delivery driver taking a wide swing onto the wrong side of the road to use a narrow residential junction so long as it is all a low speed environment. With the lorry I drove, when I got near the school, things were tighter (a pre-mass car road layout) and I had to wait for gaps to perform wide swings.

      Out on proper trunk roads and A routes, space is needed for the larger vehicles to a greater extent, but the failure here is lack of well-designed and convenient off-carriageway alternatives for pedestrians and cyclists.

  7. Hi, I am at present working on a web site ( to highlight places traffic 'conflicts' occur and to encourage highway authorities to adopt better design procedures. Swept path analysis is useful but it seems to be habitually used the wrong way round. Ie, 'Will this vehicle fit down the road I have designed?" rather than what space is actually needed. I am currently developing an online tool to correct this omission.

    I have been particularly impressed by the serious points made in your blog and the lack of any 'loony' comments on either side such as some of those reported on the tv only recently. I can see the truth in all of them. This is good.

    Keep up the good work, Chris D

    1. Thanks Chris and sorry for the delay in replying!

      Yes, for many purposes, access is all that's needed. While I wouldn't wish to design for the biggest vehicle which might need to access a street, it still needs to be practical - life is hard enough as it is driving a lorry!