On safety around trucks and mobiles

A blue curtain-sided trailer halfway round a tight corner on a road. Part of this is a public service announcement. I was involved in a minor collision a couple of weeks ago. The scene is in the photograph on the right.

I was taking this bend in the large articulated lorry you can see. It’s a minor road in Edenbridge, Kent which serves some industrial premises as well as some housing. The tractor unit is on its side of the road but the back of the trailer is not. That’s normal when a long articulated vehicle turns a sharp corner. You will notice that it’s not wide enough for a car to get through. Yet, someone tried to drive one through that gap, and the driver’s side of her car ended up against my trailer’s wheels. I stopped when I heard her shouting and honking, and she managed to reverse her car back.

Much of the publicity surrounding truck safety is about cyclists getting crushed when they attempt to overtake a truck, usually an eight-wheel tipper truck, on the left as the tipper is just about to turn left. The problem has to do with poor visibility; there is a blind spot immediately below a truck’s nearside window, which is only partly alleviated by a down-facing mirror above the window. Very little education is given to other road users about how to stay safe around big trucks; you only learn of the dangers when you learn to drive a truck, it seems. I commonly find car drivers sneaking round me, or trying to, when I’m attempting to negotiate a busy junction, often impatient with the fact that a truck is wider than a car and much longer and that the lanes are not wide enough to accommodate the vehicle. I need more than one lane, which is why I straddle both.

The back of an articulated lorry consisting of a low-height, white Iveco tractor unit coupled to a long, 15ft 3in high trailer with blue curtain sides. The truck is on a bend, the tractor is over to the left while the back of the trailer is about halfway over the other side of the road.Another thing to be aware of is that a truck driver cannot see all around him all the time. We have no rear-view mirror (some trucks have back cameras, but they are only used when reversing). We have three mirrors and, between them, six mirrors (sometimes we may have CCTV screens showing what’s in various blind spots as well). Add the dials on the dashboard and there are ten places we could be lookng at any one time. So in a short space of time, if you appear alongside a truck, there is a very strong chance that the driver will not see you immediately. If he is driving slowly, that might well give you time to get into a dangerous position, as was the case with the lady in this crash, who told me that she was on her side of the road and I wasn’t on mine and “never dreamed that I wouldn’t stop”. In fact, my tractor unit was on the correct side, but the trailer does not follow the same course as the tractor when turning a bend. Unless it has a rear-steer axle, which most do not (a few supermarket trailers and the new ultra-long ones do), it takes a bend more widely, especially if the bend is sharp, like this one. So even if the gap had appeared wide enough when I began taking this bend, it would not have been when I was halfway round it, or more.

The key to staying safe around trucks is to stay away. If a truck (especially an articulated one) is taking a sharp bend and you’re going the other way, stop until it’s finished. If there’s one straddling two lanes in a narrow one-way system or roundabout, stay back and don’t try to sneak up its side. Stay away from the back of a large rigid (single) truck, as on most of them the back will swing the other way when it turns (more so if it has rear steer). Don’t walk close to it on the road if its engine is running (don’t, for example, cross immediately in front of it; if you’re just below the windscreen, the driver will not see you unless he looks in the down-facing mirror, and trucks built before about 2006 don’t have them). Many lorries nowadays have stickers on the back saying “if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”, but there are many places that a driver might not see straight away. Just stay right back.

The past week or so, there has been a lot of discussion about raising the penalties for using mobiles at the wheel, after a man was jailed for nine years for killing a cyclist by hitting him at 65mph in his van, while sending a text message; the man was a repeat offender who had received five fixed penalty notices and attended two “awareness courses” for the same offence. This was clearly a recidivist, reckless driver with no regard for others’ safety or the law, and if he had been banned from driving, would have driven anyway. Deborah Orr, in yesterday’s Guardian, noted that convictions for using mobiles while driving fell by half between 2010 and 2014 and that this had been “blamed on cuts in traffic policing” (rather than that fewer people were doing it, largely because cars and sat-navs came to double as hands-free kits and because smartphones developed better voice-control) and suggested that “if fewer people are getting caught, the sensible thing would be to beef up the consequences when they are”. Apparently, from next year, the penalty for using a mobile while driving goes up to six points (meaning two such offences results in a ban) from the current three.

A hands-free kit consisting of a wire with a plug similar to a headphone jack, two earpieces, a microphone with a button, and a clip.I started driving commercially in 2000 and back then, mobile use while at the wheel was at the norm. Hands-free kits were not very reliable, often consisting of a wire with an earpiece, a microphone and a button or two (see picture). They often came bundled with the phone, but I rarely used mine because they were unconfortable and liable to get tangled up. I often took calls when driving and when I had to make a manoeuvre that really did require two hands (even changing gear), I’d say “hold on a minute”, put the phone down, do whatever I had to do and then picked it up again. That said, I was somewhat relieved when the ban came in, as I always realised it was dangerous and not being able to use the phone meant the boss couldn’t bother you. The advantage of this became more obvious years later when one of my regular employers fitted their trucks with trackers, and would call me to demand explanations for why I’d stopped (usual response was “to use the loo”) or taken the route I’d taken.

If they do increase the penalties, the new penalties should only apply when a mobile is used when actually driving, not when stationary. Many people know that it is illegal to hold a phone while driving, but they do not realise that you are breaking the law by doing so when stopped at the side of the road if the engine is running. Sometimes there is no choice; the engine needs to be running to pair the phone to the car’s hands-free, as the connection will cut when the engine is switched on (which usually cuts power to the electronics) and some cars and some phones will not automatically reconnect. Smartphones are often used as maps, sat-navs and music players these days, not just as phones or social media clients. The danger is not in the phone being used when the engine is running, but in the phone being held by the driver who should have two hands on the controls, and the law should reflect this.

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