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A Closer Look At Urban Truck Driving

In today’s post, we wanted to take a closer look at how cities and urban areas can make simple changes that create a safer environment for truck drivers. Many large cities are already taking a closer look at this issue, with New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. being at the forefront. Still, the United States lags cities in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, who put a heavy focus on safe urban trucking long before the U.S. did.

The fact is, large vehicle traffic is a common sight on almost every U.S. city street. Whether it be a refuse or utility truck, delivery van, bus, or even heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle, these trucks are ubiquitous on our nation’s urban thoroughfares. Unfortunately, although these vehicles make up a small fraction of vehicles operating on city streets, they are disproportionally involved in crashes, especially involving people walking or riding bicycles.

Size Matters

As any professional truck driver will know, there are major differences in size, speed, and mass when comparing commercial motor vehicles with passenger cars. These differences are significant enough to cause major injury or death should there be an accident. The goal, of course, is always to limit death and serious injury, but leaders within the transportation sector must prioritize safety for large commercial motor vehicles and work with local governments to ensure safer streets become a part of the urban planning paradigm.

Of course, for some safety measures, more long-term planning, infrastructure investment, and cultural changes are required. These changes must be made internally, both within municipalities and the public. The fact is, even relatively inexpensive technology, policy, and training changes to the way truck drivers operate large commercial motor vehicles can have an outsized impact on overall road safety.

It is important to note that municipalities both large and small, whether state, city, or regional governments can make quick and easy changes without having to go through a laborious bureaucratic process filled with lots of forms and red tape. In many cases this can be done through simple contract agreements with vendors, specialized procurement, or streamlining how they work with transportation agencies and operators.

The Dangers of Large Vehicle Crashes

It is widely known that the consequences of accidents with large commercial motor vehicles can be catastrophic for human life. While this is not a referendum on truck drivers or the vehicles they operate, it merely speaks to the dangers of walking or driving around a large, heavy truck or other urban utility vehicle.

Truck drivers are professional; they do everything they can to ensure the safety of those around them on roads and highways, but by nature of the design of commercial motor vehicles, it makes them more susceptible to incidents on the road or highway.

While the design issues are not intentional, in many cases they cannot be eliminated: Big trucks have blind spots. As large vehicles, they post an extra danger to pedestrians. The question is, how does the trucking industry address these challenges?

Simple Safety Technologies

There are many ways transportation companies and local organizations can address the safety challenges associated with large trucks operating in crowded urban environments. One such example of this would be restricting large vehicle access on streets with heavy or prioritized pedestrian activity. Motor carriers operating in urban environments must also get in on the safety game and take greater measures to outfit their vehicles with advanced safety measures. As these technologies mature, there is no excuse for not taking greater steps to implement them.

Even more, companies operating using large trucks don’t have to sink a ton of money into complex technologies. Simple changes, like convex mirrors, cameras, and alert devices can go a long way in ensuring both people around the vehicle and the truck driver are warned of any potential danger. In fact, one of the simplest ways to mitigate accident severity is through the installation of side guards. These simple panels are installed between the wheels and – in the event of a side-impact collision, prevent people from getting pulled under the wheels of the truck.

In fact, a study completed in the United Kingdom determined that when side guards were utilized on large trucks in the country, bicyclist fatalities dropped by a whopping 61%. Pedestrian fatalities in turn dropped by a fifth. This shows the effectiveness of side guards in preventing catastrophic injury in the event of a crash with a large vehicle in an urban environment. Once their effectiveness was proven, countries throughout Europe, Japan, and South America began requiring them in the 1980s. The question is, why hasn’t the United States? In our current anti-regulatory environment, that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.

Although it doesn’t appear that regulations coming from the federal government will be happening any time soon, many state and local governments have begun taking the matter into their own hands by creating their own side guard and safety equipment measures. And this isn’t just a North American phenomenon. Cities across the world have been taking matters into their own hands either in concert with or despite government help.

London Takes Active Measures

In London, Mayor Sadiq Kahn recently implemented a citywide ban on potentially dangerous large vehicles. This includes construction trucks and other urban operating commercial motor vehicles with an elevated cab and high wheel clearance. The full ban is expected to go into effect by January 2020. Of course, a lot of study went into determining the feasibility of this measure. For the most part, the city has been pushing for voluntary safety measures to help gradually ease the burden of transition for trucking operators.

In fact, large truck safety initiatives in the UK’s biggest city began in 2007 when the local government body Transportation for London began instituting initiatives pushing greater large vehicle safety, design, and truck driver training. What came out of these initiatives? FORS, or the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme. This initiative was focused solely on safety and environmental concerns related to large freight vehicles on urban roads and streets. A publicly funded initiative, FORS is composed of a three-tier voluntary system designed to ensure freight trucking companies and freight operators are operating in a safe and sustainable manner. Once FORS was put into place, both the working public, trucking companies, and vehicle manufacturers began making critical business decisions aligned with the new initiative.

By 2014, new initiatives were cropping up and supplementing the work that had already been done with FORS. One of those new initiatives required all freight trucks – whether public or private – to be retrofitted with safety equipment designed to protect cyclists and pedestrians, whether that be through side guards, convex, or cross-over mirrors.

Although trucking companies were the interested parties on the hook for paying for these upgrades, there was little blowback among those companies regarding the change. Why? The prior safety initiatives had already prepped trucking companies and they had already been making safety changes voluntarily. Thus, when the new initiative came out, they were already prepared. By the time the new initiative actually rolled out, only a fraction of trucking companies hadn’t already made the upgrades.

Boston Gets in on the Game

Sure, European cities have been long ahead of North American cities in forcing this kind of change, but that does not mean that the United States is without its own examples. After a string of fatalities involving large trucks in 2012, Boston began talking about how it could go about mandating change. One such discussion point was the fact that many trucking companies have been sued because someone was killed by one of their vehicles and they did not have side guards installed on their truck.

As a result, the city called for a side guard ordinance in 2013. The city started first, with the Office of Public Works outfitting every refuse truck with side guards. While each retrofit cost $1,800 to complete, the city called it a necessary expense. And since they were asking private companies to do the same, demonstrating an example to set showed the trucking companies how they could get started.

By 2014, a new ordinance required that vendors who operated with city contracts also had to be equipped with side guards. Then they went further and mandated that they also had to be equipped with convex mirrors, cross-over mirrors, and blind-spot awareness decals. Before any contract can be written out, finalized, approved, or paid, the vehicles in question are required to be checked for compliance and then approved.

While it should not take fatalities to get cities to move on mandating safety technologies, the fact that something is being done provides hope. With great results saving lives across cities around the world, will the federal government finally take steps to ensure trucking companies are making these changes on a fleetwide level? Only time will tell.

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