Haulage is blighting Britain’s road safety record

The government says it wants to improve HGV safety but at the moment it is not following a coherent policy.

By Philippa Edmunds of the Campaign for Better Transport 

Far fewer people die on our roads each year than was the case a decade ago. However we must not undo the good work through ill-considered changes to rules for heavy good vehicles.

According to Department for Transport statistics, 1,754 people lost their lives on the country’s roads in 2012. This figure is far too high and many of these deaths were avoidable, but notably it is part of a downward trend and is half the number killed in 2002. By this measure, the UK has just about the safest roads in Europe.

Yet there are signs the government is putting this achievement in jeopardy.

Campaign for Better Transport has just published research showing HGVs lagging behind other transport types in reducing accidents. Concerningly, the government is also trialling changes to rules for HGVs that could make lorry movements more dangerous. At European level, hauliers are pushing for double articulated mega-trucks to be allowed free movement across the continent.

We commissioned consultants MTRU to look at statistics on road fatalities since 2007. The results show that although improvements have been made across the board, the percentage of the most serious accidents involving HGVs has increased significantly. Last year, one in five of the fatal crashes on our A-roads involved an HGV. Worse, on motorways more than half of fatal accidents involved an HGV.

These statistics should give government pause for thought about safety. But last year, they caved in to industry pressure in allowing trials of longer trailers on UK roads. Our research, published last week, shows that because of their reduced manoeuvrability, particularly while cornering (known as out-swing) these trailers are unsuitable for many urban roads. As a matter of urgency, we have written to the secretary of state calling on him to give local authorities the right to dictate which routes these lorries can travel on.

Government is also showing signs of ceding to industry demands on speed limits for lorries. Currently, HGVs are limited to 40mph on single carriageway A-roads. Government recently consulted on plans to raise this to 45 or 50mph and is expected to make an announcement shortly.

At EU level, plans are afoot to allow so-called mega-trucks to cross national boundaries, risking a domino effect with trucks being used across the continent over time. Research has shown double articulated lorries up to 82ft long and carrying a maximum of 60 tonnes are worse for the safety of other road users, worse for emissions and highly damaging to road surfaces (a significant issue when you consider the UK’s £10.5bn backlog of pot holes).

Although the UK government has claimed it will not allow mega trucks on UK roads, they will come under huge pressure from industry to do so if such lorries are freely circulating across borders with certain countries on the continent.

The case for ever longer lorries relies on the mistaken presumption that there would be fewer but bigger trucks on the roads. In practice, however, since the previous increases in dimensions there is no evidence of larger or heavier lorries leading to improvements in average payloads or a reduction in empty running. In fact, over a quarter of lorries are driving around completely empty.

As ever, the mantra of increased competitiveness is used in pushing for these changes. But the UK can improve the efficiency of haulage while addressing safety and tackling environmental impact. We should support the continued mode shift from road to rail by ensuring all major new distribution parks are planned with a rail connection.

There is also a case for introducing a simple but comprehensive road user charging scheme for goods vehicles based on vehicle type and distance instead of the time based system being introduced in 2014. This system should include incentives for the use of low emission vehicles and different rates at different times of the day to reduce congestion at peak times.

Improved enforcement of vehicle standards would also help make sure all lorries meet legal guidelines and are driven in line with the law.

The government says it wants to improve HGV safety but at the moment it is not following a coherent policy. It should reject calls for mega trucks, prevent HGVs from using inappropriate roads and keep speed limits at 40mph.

By including standards for safe lorry design, equipment and driver training in the national freight operator guidelines, we can build on the improvements the UK has already made to road safety.

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