Truck drivers, like most of us, try very hard to avoid hurting anyone. But the deadly repetition of death continues -- trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In New York City truck were involved in 32% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses and the numbers keep rising.
The combination of huge blind spots in the driver’s vision (especially from the cabs of the biggest and tallest trucks), the pressure drivers are under from their companies to increase their loads and cut their time, and the lack of city-specific commercial driver training in the US – all add up to nearly inevitable tragedy.
There are some defensive tactics that pedestrians and bicyclists can use. Unfortunately, these are not fool-proof and not enough to prevent tragedy. What is also needed are systemic changes in both truck drivers’ ability to see what’s around them, and the availability of training resources to help truck drivers operate more safely in urban areas.
Accomplishing these two changes requires changes in public policy. Public policy changes slowly and with great difficulty – it is constitutionally designed to have multiple steps and, because our political system is so dependent on business support, it is repeatedly subject to vested-interest push-backs. However, progress is happening. This summer, D.C. became the first state to pass a side guard and mirror law for all large trucks. A truck side-guard and blind-spot mirror bill is advancing in New York State, with New York City as a major sponsor. A similar bill was introduced in last year’s session of the Massachusetts Legislature – it will hopefully get more traction when it’s re-introduced this year.
THE PROCUREMENT STRATEGY
But even without legislation, there is a proven two-pronged strategy to speed our progress towards safer streets. The first is for governments to lead the way with their own vehicles – installing side guards and blind-spot systems. Some cities are already running pilot programs: Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Newton in Massachusetts alone. (At the bottom of this post is a list of ideas based on a previous blog describing additional safety changes that governments should implement.)
Even more powerfully, there is a way to create change at a much larger scale than the small number of government-owned trucks and buses. Governments, large non-profits (e.g. hospitals and universities), as well as major private businesses (including real estate developers, manufacturers, and tech-based) have enormous procurement budgets. The procurement budget of New York City, for example, was $15.3b in FY2016! If they were to make truck safety improvements mandatory for firms doing business with them we would see rapid change across the entire transportation industry.
Transport for London (TfL) has used exactly this approach, in alliance with the region’s largest real estate developers and other firms, to get nearly 25,000 trucks on the road with full mirror sets, proximity sensors or cameras to detect vulnerable Road Users (VRUs) near the sides of the trucks, external audiovisual turn alerts to warn bicyclists, and full side guards (which were exempt for construction vehicles until recently). Additionally, their procurement strategy has led to 28,000 truck drivers in the last several years being trained in the all-day Safe Urban Driving course, which requires truck drivers to get on a bicycle, ride with instructors through busy urban intersections, and experience first-hand how VRUs co-exist with trucks and buses on city streets. Based on the drivers’ feedback and post-class track record, it’s obvious that the experience significantly changed their attitudes and driving behavior. These trucks and their drivers have a 41% reduction in injury crashes compared to those who are non-compliant with the procurement requirements. The success has been such that in March of this year, TfL made it mandatory for all developers to require these safety measures in their own supply chains --and it wasn't politically controversial.
Here in Massachusetts, Partners Healthcare is considering pioneering this route of using procurement to make our streets safer, starting with requiring side guards and mirrors on their contracted trucks. This would be very fitting for a company focused on human health, much like Kaiser Permanente's sponsorship of Vision Zero Network. (Anyone who knows management at Partners and Brigham and Women's, please encourage them to do this!) At the same time, every agency of state government – going beyond DCR, MassDOT, DEP, and the MBTA to include Health & Human Services, Community Development, and other agencies -- should lead by example and begin requiring at least truck side guards and full mirror sets in all their contracts. As should our local governments.
MAKING IT EASIER
In what could be a game-changer, the Volpe National Transportation Center has proposed a set of national standards. Every procurement RFP and contract issued by a public or private sector organization can now “incorporate by reference” these requirements without having to know or figure out the details of side guards. It turns requiring side guards, a technically complicated issue, into a simple check box insertion instead of a research project for hospitals, cities, or state agencies.
Driver training is almost as important as side guards. We don't have the Safe Urban Driving training program in the US, but the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) last year developed a shorter curriculum for truck and bus drivers focused on urban Vulnerable Road User (VRU) safety. They created a YouTube video and a syllabus that could be replicated in MA and other states for free. SFMTA has required this training of all their contracted and City fleet drivers of large vehicles, with over 3,700 drivers trained to date.
It’s time for all of us to start demanding that our public agencies, large non-profits, and major private firms step up to do what they can – NOW – to make our streets safer.
There are several ways that pedestrians and bicyclists should protect themselves while we work for policy and contracts to change. First is to pay attention: pedestrians shouldn’t step into the street with their eyes fixated on your phone. Always wait to see if a truck is going to turn before stepping into a crosswalk. Don’t bike abreast of a moving truck; it might pull over. Never wait to the right of a truck at a red light; always wait at least ten feet in front of or behind it. Never pass on the right when you're approaching or in an intersection; you never know if the truck is going to turn without signaling (or if its turn signals even work).
POLICY IDEAS FROM A PREVIOUS BLOG
- Side-guards and wheel-guards save lives and should be installed on city-owned trucks and buses. (It is vital that the height of the side guard from the street be small enough to effectively prevent roll-unders by children as well as adults – for example, the side guard should be no higher than the lowest part of the truck and cab body or a maximum of 14 inches, whichever is lower.)
- Municipalities should also install blind-spot mirrors or cameras on its trucks, as well as side-of-truck outside turning blinkers and audible alarms to warn pedestrians and cyclists that a truck is turning.
- Make it worthwhile for transportation firms to upgrade their vehicles, and painful if they don’t – such as restricting the use of municipally regulated sidewalk loading zones to trucks with side-guards.
- Restrict the passage of large trucks through smaller streets, residential areas, or near schools and playgrounds; restrict deliveries in busy areas to non-work-day hours.
- The Public Schools should be urged to work with the municipal Bikes Program to expand access to bicycle skill and safety training in Elementary and Middle schools, as is already happening in Cambridge.
- The city’s Traffic and Public Works Departments should be required to aggressively implement its Complete Streets and Bicycle Network plans which will improve the safety and functionality of our streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and car occupants. Separate signals or at least separate signal phases for motor vehicles and bikes should be installed where appropriate.
- Following San Francisco’s lead, cities should urge the state to strengthen Commercial Driver licensing and re-licensing requirements. It is dangerously inadequate and unfair to under-train commercial drivers for the requirements of safe city driving. A skills test around a parking lot and backing a trailer into a loading dock do not prepare anyone to safely drive a 40-ton truck through a populated downtown at rush hour. This has to change.
Thanks to Alex Epstein of the Volpe Center who contributed to this post and is a national leader pushing for increased awareness in the USA of the value of truck side guards and other on-vehicle safety systems.
Related previous posts include: