Cycle safety solution or stop-gap?
Published: 21 June, 2016
McGee Construction wanted to make its fleet of HGVs safer for those on two wheels so it turned to a group of design students – many of whom are cyclists. Jemma Dempsey met those involved in the latest innovative cycle-safety product which is already patent-registered.
Read the words HGVs and cyclists in the same sentence and rarely does it have a happy ending. The headlines say it all: ‘Husband of cyclist killed by London lorry cries as driver is acquitted,' or ‘Furious street brawl erupts between cyclist and lorry driver,' there are many to choose from. The statistics bear witness to a worrying trend in cyclist injury and deaths from incidents with HGVs, particularly in London where the traffic-choked streets are trying to accommodate a massive influx of people turning to the healthier and more environmentally friendly option of cycling.
Sadly, this option is not a safer one. Rospa, the body for accident prevention, says 113 cyclists were killed on our roads in 2014, another 3,400 were seriously injured, three-quarters of them in urban areas. And more interestingly still, 75% of those happen at or near a road junction. And this often involves the well documented problem of lorries turning left and cyclists being caught in the drivers' blind spot. In 2011, according to CycleLaw, HGVs amounted to only 4% of the traffic on London's roads yet were involved in more than half of all cycle fatalities. And Transport for London (TfL) has calculated that a cyclist is 78 times more likely to be killed in an accident involving a HGV than one involving a car.
If HGVs pose an ever-increasing risk to the nation's cyclists, what can improve their lot? Much work is being done to make it safer for everyone to use our roads. Various initiatives allowing cyclists and HGV drivers to swap places, on bikes and in cabs, certainly provide a different perspective. And last year London banned vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes from the capital's roads unless they were fitted with sideboards, to prevent cyclists from being dragged under the wheels in a collision. HGVs must also be fitted with a curved mirror to give drivers a better view of cyclists in their blind spot.
Construction company McGee has a large fleet of tipper and delivery vehicles and has been doing business in the capital since the 1950s. Group Safety Director John Hennessy said they wanted to see if anything else could be done and, after some discussion, they decided to approach Nottingham Trent University and laid down a challenge to the second year students on the Product Design course.
He said: ‘The challenge was: What can we do to the vehicles to minimise the risk? But they had to take account of what the vehicles are used for and so, while they do go on to roads, they're frequently on rough terrain and go off-road to get loaded.'
As part of the brief McGee invited the university students down to London and took them to one of their sites to demonstrate how the vehicles operate and the challenges they faced.
Hennessy said: ‘Once they could see the wheels could get sunk down to the wheel nuts, if they were thinking about putting a skirt around the vehicle they'd have to be careful about how low they could go with obstructions. I think there were a lot of benefits in having the site visit.'
With such a high profile issue there were a lot of pressures to come up with a meaningful design, admitted course leader Dr Matthew Watkins.
‘But the students could relate to this as a lot of them are cyclists and they live in a city. We didn't want to let the company down but I knew they would deliver and they did.'
His point is echoed by Hennessy: ‘I went up to Nottingham Trent University for the presentation and it far exceeded our expectations. We were all quite excited about what they'd come up with and there was merit in everything they'd done. It was unbelievable in the short period they had.'
For Hennessy, the outstanding concept was the Flexi Flag. He says its relatively straightforward and simple design marked out it from the others.
‘There were some super designs, some of which were quite expensive and would only work with certain vehicles but the Flexi Flag could fit any of our trucks.'
One of the creators, Olly Kirby, said the inspiration for the Flexi Flag, which flips out from the side of the vehicle when the indicator is engaged, came from the United States: ‘American school buses have a sign which pops out from the side of the bus which warns on-coming drivers of children coming out from the rear of the vehicle and that's been quite successful. And they've got laws in place which allow for prosecutions if cars overtake buses dropping children off. So we saw how successful it was there and wanted to adopt that.'
This simple but highly-visible early warning system is made of plastic and fitted with a flexible knuckle joint, which means it just bends back if it makes contact with anything, or anybody. Originally the flag was designed to emerge above the wheel to deter the cyclist from coming up the nearside of the lorries' blind spot, but that principle has been modified so it acts as more of a visual warning. And there will be two of them – one at the front and one at the rear of the vehicle. Before showing it to McGee the students trialled it at a local depot.
‘You can only do so much when you're sat in the studio modelling, you need to trial it in the real world,' noted Kirby.
‘We did quite a lot of testing on colour but found yellow was the most appropriate, not only because it alludes to danger but it's also related to the construction industry and it will also have a reflective strip on it like number plates so it will light up in the dark.'
The students also wanted to make the solution a cheap one because, in such a demanding industry, the product to be readily replaced should it be damaged.
Ed Wall is another student in the team behind Flexi Flag and relished the challenge. He said: ‘The flag provides a visual warning, signalling that you're in the danger zone and that you have to make an informed decision of whether to continue or not. It takes the responsibility and puts an element of it on to the cyclist.'
The idea of sharing the responsibility will no doubt be welcomed by drivers. But the cyclists canvassed by the students voiced mixed feelings about the flag because of its physical design. However, Olly Kirby argues: ‘It needs to be intrusive if it's going to deter the cyclists from getting into a dangerous position.'
But this dangerous position, many cycling groups argue, is why London should follow the lead of Paris and Dublin. The French capital introduced strict controls on HGV deliveries which has effectively seen them disappear from its roads. It means there are no large vehicles on the roads during peak hours – for example HGVs can only deliver between 10pm and 7am and medium sized vehicles from 10pm to 5pm. This has led haulage companies to use smaller, low-emission vehicles.
The results speak for themselves: In 2011 there were no cycling fatalities in Paris; in London there were 16 during the same period. And this is why the British Cycling Federation maintains that cyclists and HGVs make for uneasy bedfellows. It also points to Dublin which restricted large vehicles from the city centre in 2007. After just one year and partially as a consequence of this, the number of cyclists in the city increased by 30%.
Conversely London restricts HGVs from entering the city during the night, 9pm to 7am and on Sundays, forcing them to use the road during the day, when the majority of cyclists are on the road. And with London currently witnessing a massive skyscraper boom – 119 new towers are in the pipeline – the amount of construction traffic in the capital can only increase.
For now, the arrival of the Flexi Flag might be as good a solution as both cyclists and truck drivers can get. Hennessey hopes McGee's trucks will be fitted with it by the end of the year. And a joint patent between McGee and the students has been registered, which can only help with their future careers in product design.