Longer semi-trailers: Stings in the tail


Back in August, Cycling UK heard some alarming news: the Department for Transport (DfT) had decided to end its trial of longer semi-trailers (LSTs) early, opting to subject them to nothing more than ‘light regulation’ from then on.

Why were we so alarmed? Just for a start, LSTs can be up to 2.05 metres longer than a typical HGV trailer, and we know how intimidating it is to cycle or walk in the company of big, heavy vehicles, especially when they’re overtaking.

Cherry Allan

But it’s not just about intimidation. The risks are real: HGVs normally account for 3.4% of all motor traffic mileage on GB’s non-motorway roads, but from 2015-19 (typical, non-pandemic years), they were involved in 15.5% of cyclist and 11% of pedestrian fatalities.

In other words, the HGVs are disproportionately involved in cyclist and pedestrian road deaths – hardly surprising given that the bigger and heavier the vehicle involved in a collision with a vulnerable human being, the smaller the odds are of surviving it.

It’s little comfort for us that HGVs travel mainly on motorways. They travel extensively on A roads too: 39% of standard articulated fleet mileage, 36% for LSTs. By choice or unavoidably, A roads are vital routes for many people who ride their bikes. What’s more, the A roads favoured by HGVs are predominately rural, a road class that carries only about 4% of cycle mileage, but is the scene of almost a quarter of cyclist fatalities.

As for minor roads, it’s true that HGVs don’t clock up the miles on them and nor did the LSTs on trial at 2%. This may sound small, but when lorries finally turn off motorways and head for local depots or retail stores, it’s then that their most complex and potentially hazardous manoeuvring usually begins.

It also happens to be where they’re most likely to meet people who are walking or cycling – footfall is high and about 83% of all cycling takes place on minor roads.

The DfT itself acknowledges that ‘LSTs would be expected to perform most high angle turns’ in urban locations or on minor roads. But perhaps the most worrying thing of all is this: their extra length translates into an extended tail-swing, something that may not be apparent to anyone in the near vicinity.

As Action on Lorry Danger (ALD), a coalition including Cycling UK, put it to the then transport minister Jesse Norman in November 2018: ‘Many urban and local roads in the UK are unlikely to be able to accommodate such large vehicles, requiring them to perform movements that put other, more vulnerable, road users at risk, such as mounting kerbs or traffic islands; swinging over kerbs, traffic islands or adjacent lanes; and entering adjacent lanes, parking bays or footways.’

Three years later, we’re not in the least reassured by the results of the LST trial even though, at face value, it doesn’t look as if we have much to worry about.

The DfT’s latest analysis states that the LST injury incident rate for vulnerable road users in all locations ‘appears to be lower… but the difference in rates does not pass a classical statistical significance test’ (which is to be expected, given the small sample size).

Looking at the detail, we find that 46 injury collisions in public locations were reported to the trial from 2012 to 2020, four involving someone either walking or cycling:

  • A cyclist fell off and died while an LST was overtaking (legal proceedings pending).
  • A cyclist was hit and seriously injured when an LST moved from a slip road to a dual carriageway (the driver said he was dazzled by the evening sun).
  • An LST, turning right from a minor road into an industrial estate, clipped a youth said to be 'messing about'.
  • The tail-end of an LST slightly injured a pedestrian while making a very high angle turn in an urban location during a driver assessment.

Only the last of these incidents is thought to be related to the longer length of the vehicle, however.

Be that as it may, the key word here for us is ‘trial’. The DfT had to conduct their experiment with a new type of huge vehicle very carefully indeed.

The voluntary participants, operating at their own cost and risk, were on their best behaviour, especially training drivers, closely assessing routes and, under pain of losing their VSO, self-reporting data.

Success, and the greater productivity and profits that would flow from it, depended on compliance and safe practice.

But that wasn’t the real world. We know, just as the DfT knows, that ‘remaining issues, relating to the safety, can only be answered outside of trial settings’.

This means that, as the LST fleet builds up to the projected 16,000 within a decade, these remaining safety issues will be playing out under mere ‘light regulation’. To put this lightness in some perspective, the DfT toyed with but rejected proposals for LSTs to run on major roads for at least 80% of each journey.

And, while operators will, among other things, have to carry out route risk assessments and deal appropriately with deviations and road closures, it appears that they’ll only be expected to provide specific driver training lasting a minimum of half a day.

So, now it’s over to the real world, a world of thousands of 'lightly regulated' LSTs, of myriad and sudden diversions round back streets and country lanes, questionable sat-nav directions; and, from our experience, of pressurised firms and their workers, some of them potentially rogue and cutting corners.

And now we have a crisis to add to that, namely the shortage of lorry drivers, triggering a temporary relaxation to drivers’ hours and moves to expedite training.

Lorry drivers are highly skilled professionals and their training and regulations on hours of working are there for a reason: to keep all road users safe. It is worrying at a time when the Government gives the green light to a new longer lorry it is also introducing relaxations that arguably undermine the profession while also increasing stress and road danger.

We can only hope that all hauliers recognise and act on their responsibilities to other road users; that they ensure their drivers are well looked after and the promised technical measures to reduce tail-swing or kick-out will both manifest and work. If we are to have the ‘savings’ LSTs make in terms of trips, albeit modest, then this must also translate into fewer casualties.

We also hope that councils will use their powers to restrict or ban LSTs from unsuitable streets; position site depots responsibly; plan for onward delivery by friendlier vehicles; and not start redesigning junctions to accommodate such large vehicles and, in doing so, make them a (worse) nightmare for people on foot or bike.

We don’t want this to be a 'told you so' story about putting productivity over cyclists and pedestrians’ safety, but we’re not convinced.

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