Boris Johnson Is Wrong About Killer Trucks

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In his trenchant resignation letter, former U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recalled how, in his previous role as London mayor, he had tried to reduce the number of cyclist deaths from collisions with trucks but then found he could not because it was up to the EU to adopt the necessary safety regulations. This passage deserves more than a mere fact check, because the problem is far from unique to London — and it can’t be solved by a Johnson-style populist onslaught.

As anyone who cycles regularly to work (including Johnson, who did so as mayor) knows, motor vehicles are a source of mortal danger. Drivers are trained to look out for blind spots, but some forget, and large vehicles have larger blind spots. That’s why in Belgium, 43 percent of cycling fatalities are caused by trucks. In the U.K., that share is 33 percent, rising to 50 percent in London. It’s easy to see why any mayor would be worried.

In the resignation letter, Johnson wrote:

We had wanted to lower the cabin windows to improve visibility; and even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists, we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter.

He’d mentioned this in a Telegraph column before: “I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.”

Fact-checkers pointed out that in 2014 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to require the cab design changes to improve visibility. They are decreed by a 2015 directive

One could argue, of course, that the EU moves way too slowly and that a national parliament could have legislated much faster. And one could object that moving faster on a national level might not have the desired effect: Truck manufacturers such as Iveco, DAF, Volvo/Renault, Daimler and MAN aren’t U.K.-based, and they might not make immediate, costly design changes just because U.K. legislators want them. France and Sweden are home to big truckmakers, and they tried unsuccessfully to put off the EU action by 10 years because the modifications require preparation. 

But no matter what national or EU regulators decide on truck windows, there are still thousands of older vehicles on the roads, produced before regulators seized on window design as a cause of accidents involving cyclists. Special blind spot mirrors were made obligatory by an EU directive in 2003 and all vehicles were supposed to be fitted with them by 2009. Even though the mirrors likely saved some lives, trucks haven’t stopped running over cyclists.

Better window design helps, too, but it doesn’t force the driver to pay attention. The current regulatory focus is on fitting trucks with electronic detection and warning systems to alert the driver to cyclists and pedestrians in close proximity. The German parties forming the current government even mentioned the solution in their coalition agreement: Accidents involving trucks and cyclists, including young children, regularly make the front pages of the German press. 

One German truck producer, Daimler, already fits its new vehicles with the detections systems. But getting companies with big truck fleets to spend hundreds or thousands of euros (depending on the system and the difficulty of installing it) per truck is another matter. In May, the European Commission adopted a proposal that would do it. But it’ll take time, as supranational regulation always does.

While the legislative wheels grind, national and local authorities, including mayors, have a lot to do on their own. Two huge areas for improvement are the cycling infrastructure and the traffic culture. 

In Germany, 393 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents in 2016, compared with 102 in the U.K. But while only 3 percent of Brits ride a bicycle on a typical day, 12 percent of Germans do it. That means 4 deaths per 100,000 regular cyclists in Germany and 5.1 in the U.K. Vehicle regulations are the same in both countries, and Germany has more traffic deaths per 100,000 population than the U.K. — so why are cyclists safer there? The answer is somewhat counterintuitive: The more cyclists a country have, the fewer accidents they get into, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s directly related to the state of the bicycle infrastructure — broad, convenient, well-marked bike paths, special traffic lights — and the driving culture, which must be unthreatening to cyclists for their numbers to increase.

Working on expanding the bike lane network and reminding drivers about proper behavior (such as, for example, looking at the road before opening a door) don’t require EU or national regulation. Even when it comes to trucks and buses, local and national authorities can do a lot on their own. Governments can pressure fleet owners to install the additional equipment and insurance companies to offer lower premiums in exchange for doing that. In Germany, big retailers Edeka and Aldi have already agreed, at the government’s urging, to retrofit their trucks. City authorities have their own levers; they could even go as far as banning vehicles without such equipment from city centers.

The EU may be too slow, but it’s usually thorough. Meanwhile, a dedicated public official can do a lot to solve most problems without waiting for regulations to pass — unless his intention is to shove it off on somebody else or, worse still, simply pass the blame. Johnson’s self-serving mentions of the cyclist-killing “juggernauts” appear to fit that unfortunate pattern.

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